On April 3, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio Malcolm x gave his speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”. Malcolm X delivered this speech to relay the warning that if African Americans were not granted the right to vote, that the movement may devolve into violence. Malcolm X wanted his speech to emphasize the horrific common experience that all African Americans were facing. As a Black nationalist, Malcolm X pushes for people of color to “wake up” and fight for their right to vote, even if it resorts to violent means. In his speech he poses the question to the government on whether they wanted the “ballot or the bullet”? (X 1964)
Malcolm X poses multiple arguments throughout his speech that sparked political discourse during a peak time in the Civil Rights Movement. He argues that politicians lied when they promised African Americans civil rights for their own personal gain. He also states that African Americans are blindly voting for candidates who do nothing when they are in office. His next argument is that it is illegal and unconstitutional to prevent Blacks from voting. The spoke of what it means to be an “American”; he describes it to be someone “who not only sits at the table but has access to all its food as well” (X 1964). To Malcolm X, the American Dream could not be achieved by Blacks, but only the American Nightmare (X 1964). He argued that because of this Blacks were still not American. His strongest argument was made for the ballot or the bullet. He believed that if the present social and political climate did not change, and if Blacks did not receive voting power that we would have to make a choice to case the bullet to receive these freedoms “by any means necessary” (Umoja 1999).
Malcolm X makes the strong argument that Blacks will not have power unless they fight for their right to vote. This argument is strong because it lit the fire to keep pushing for free and equal suffrage. This speech was meant for all oppressed Black to hear, so that they come together and fight for equal voting rights. I think that his message was conveyed clearly to the African American audiences. He uses a lot of sarcasm throughout his speech which also brought a bit of humor to a serious situation. His analogies used were strong when posed in an “if this or that format”. For example, “the ballot or the bullet”, and “liberty or death” (Umoja 1999).
Malcolm X’s message instilled fear into the American government, and white audiences. This weakened his audience’s attention for change and centered the focus on when African Americans were going to “cast the bullet”. He also uses the term “Uncle Sam” a lot as a reference to the government, which emphasizes the idea that he did not identify as American.
“The Ballot or the Bullet” speech contributed to African American political thought by expressing the idea of Black nationalism to oppressed Black people. This speech sparked political discourse because of the fear of what “by any means necessary” stood for. It also impacted the shift in African American rhetoric in terms of civil rights. This speech also argued for deserved rights and poked through the idea that Blacks were not American.
Malcolm, X. “The ballot or the bullet.” April 3 (1964): 23-44.
Umoja, Akinyele O. “The ballot and the bullet: A comparative analysis of armed resistance in the civil rights movement.” Journal of Black Studies 29.4 (1999): 558-578.