"The Ballot or the Bullet" is the name of a groundbreaking speech given by Civil Rights pioneer Malcolm X on April 3, 1964. The speech was delivered at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio in response to the foot-dragging going on in Congress when it came to voting for the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Despite the legacy of Malcolm’s continued reiteration that equality among the races must be brought about “by any means necessary” this speech was almost immediately and most certainly has been considered in the time since it was given to be one of the most sophisticated and mature evocations of the concept of bringing about radical change in a reactionary society through the democratic processes of voting.
At the same time that this message of democratic principles was being delivered, however, Malcolm X continued to repeat what had become a recurring motif in his greatest speeches: the battle against white oppression of blacks was one steeped in an entrenched war against systemic racism that could only be conquered through the unification of all African-Americans regardless of their differences in status, economic class, and political persuasion.
As with so much of Malcolm’s politically charged speeches, the underlying threat that “by any means necessary” had to extend by definition to taking the course of violence remains present. The maturity of “The Ballot or the Bullet” that has since caused this speech to rise nearly to the level of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in terms of scholarly and academic appreciation of its rhetorical strategy belies the foundation of the insurrectional thrust of the theme: Malcolm’s genuine maturity here is displayed in the intense intellectual realization afforded by America’s own rebellious origin that when political affordability for bringing about change is stifled by those very political sensibilities, it is incumbent upon the oppressed to consider violence as a last resort.
The vaunted maturity of the speech expresses this concept in one of its most famous lines: “You let that white man know, if this is a country of freedom, let it be a country of freedom; and if it's not a country of freedom, change it.”