3 Takeaways From Malcolm X’s Ballot Or Bullet Speech

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Written by Ann Brown
Ballot or the bullet
Here are three takeaways from civil rights activist Malcolm X’s iconic 1964 speech, “The Ballot Or The Bullet.” Photo: Malcolm X Shabazz is shown in 1963. (AP Photo)

A month after he spilt from the Nation of Islam and went out on his own, Malcolm X delivered one of his most powerful speeches on April 12, 1964.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” speech was delivered at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit, and many scholars point to it as “the fullest declaration of his Black nationalist philosophy,” American Radio Works reported.

Some 2,000 people turned out to hear him speak at a time when President Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection in 1964. 

Here are three takeaways from “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

As it was then, as it is today

In his speech, Malcolm X not only told Black people to take action but advised them on how to do so. Voting was one way.  Malcolm X also urged Black people to join civil rights organizations such as the NAACP and Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). This is one way, he said, to spread Black nationalism and bring awareness to the problems affecting the Black community. Action — either by the ballot or the bullet — would be the only way to fight and defeat “white man’s” oppression, he said.

That the speech was delivered more than 56 years ago, but Malcolm X’s advice is more relevant than ever today as people take to the streets to speak out against racial injustice.

“Because of the effects of violence in today’s media, a young person who has not been educated about the history and meaning of the ballot or bullet metaphor could develop the wrong impression of this historical phrase as well as current, violent political rhetoric,” Anne Marie Renalds wrote in a textual analysis published by the University of South Carolina Upstate ( ELF 2011, Vol. 3). “Therefore, young people should be educated about political language, and politicians need to become more aware of the words they say in any form of public media.”

Race and entitlement still run the way things are conducted in the U.S., Renalds wrote. Malcolm X “refers to a similar phenomenon when he describes the ‘white man’ who considers himself in a position of power because of race. Although the Constitution gives Blacks equal rights, in the 1960s Blacks were still confronted with brutal policemen and inhumane acts of race-based violence during peaceful protests.”

Time is running out

In his speech, Malcolm X stressed the urgency of action. He insisted Black people had to make a choice between the bullet or the ballot. Malcolm X insists that it was “one or the other in 1964. It isn’t that time is running out—time has run out!”

While the “white man” wants the African-American vote, he is not willing to give the Black community anything in return, according to Malcolm X. This reflects on the situation Black voters find themselves in today. High-profile influencers as Diddy and Ice Cube are threatening to hold the Black vote hostage unless the Black community is given something in return, such as reparations.

“By using the threat of the ballot or the bullet, the Black community can fight oppression, segregation, and in turn receive respect like the majority of American citizens,” Renalds wrote. “Based on my interpretation, Malcolm X’s speech empowered the Back community to unite and fight racial persecution. I believe the end of segregation, lynching, and oppression was directly related to this speech because Malcolm X’s followers were inspired to come together and defend their rights.”

Black people still aren’t considered American

Society in the 1960s and today still considers Black people outsiders — not true Americans. Malcolm X spoke of this back then and his thoughts still resonate today.

“I don’t even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there’d be no problem. Those honkies that just got off the boat, they’re already Americans. Polacks are already Americans. The Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren’t Americans yet,” Malcolm X said, according to excerpts from his speech at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

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Malcolm X said he doesn’t believe in deluding himself.

“I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American. … If birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any legislation. You wouldn’t need any amendments to the Constitution…I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream. I see an American nightmare.”