"The Ballot or the Bullet" is a groundbreaking speech given by civil rights pioneer Malcolm X on April 3 and 12, 1964. The speech was delivered twice—first at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and second at the King Solomon Baptist...
Malcolm X was a celebrated and controversial figure in the civil rights movement known for his racial advocacy, his vocal support of black nationalism, and his affiliation with the Nation of Islam. Of his impact on the civil rights struggle, theologian James Cone wrote: "More than anyone else he revolutionized the black mind, transforming docile Negroes and self-effacing colored people into proud blacks and self-confident African-Americans."
He was born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska to a Baptist preacher father who was later murdered by white vigilantes and a mother who was committed to a state mental institution when Malcolm was 12. Malcolm and his seven brothers and sisters spent the remainder of their childhoods in foster homes. Following eighth grade, Malcolm dropped out of school, citing a teacher who had told him his dreams of becoming a lawyer were unrealistic for a "nigger."
The next several years Malcolm took on the name Detroit Red and lived as a pimp and a petty criminal, culminating in his imprisonment for burglary in 1946. While incarcerated, Malcolm became an avid reader and joined the Nation of Islam. He changed his name to Malcolm X, so as to eliminate his white-imposed slave name.
In the years after his release, Malcolm X became a prominent spokesperson for the Nation of Islam, which rejected the mainstream of the civil rights movement in favor of black economic and social separatism. Eventually, Malcolm's political involvement and civil rights advocacy caused a rift between him and Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam. As a result, Malcolm X split from the Nation of Islam and grew to even larger prominence as a civil rights leader.
"The Ballot or the Bullet" was a speech given one month after Malcolm X's disaffiliation with the Nation of Islam. It became one of the most famous orations in American history and notably reframed the issue of African-American oppression as one of human rights, rather than civil rights.
After giving the speech, Malcolm X embarked on a pilgrimage to Mecca, from which he returned with a less militant stance against assimilation and a more inclusive approach to ending white supremacy and colonialism. In 1964, he founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).
In February of 1965, Malcolm X was shot before an OAAU rally by members of the Nation of Islam, reportedly on Elijah Muhammed's orders.