The Ballot or the Bullet

The Ballot or the Bullet Quotes and Analysis

So we're trapped, trapped, double-trapped, triple-trapped. Any way we go, we find that we're trapped. And every kind of solution that someone comes up with is just another trap. But the political and economic philosophy of black nationalism…the economic philosophy of black nationalism shows our people the importance of setting up these little stores, and developing them and expanding them into larger operations.

Malcolm X, paragraph 14

Here, Malcolm X describes the effects of frequenting predominantly white-owned and -operated businesses. Choosing to spend money at establishments when the money will not feed back into the community ensures that the economic conditions of that community will not change. They will remain what he elsewhere terms a "slum" or a "ghetto." This, he explains, is the economic philosophy of black nationalism, which will help to promote the twin goals of equal rights and racial uplift. His repetition of the word "trapped" accords to it an especial significance, and increases the reader or listener's experience of feeling closed-in upon, because the language itself is not changing, but replicating itself in each new clause.

Whether you are a Christian or a Muslim or a nationalist, we all have the same problem. They don't hang you because you're a Baptist; they hang you 'cause you're black [applause]. They don't attack me because I'm a Muslim. They attack me 'cause I'm black. They attacked all of us for the same reason. All of us catch hell from the same enemy. We're all in the same bag, in the same boat.

Malcolm X, paragraph 19

In this quote, Malcolm X urges his audience to set aside those religious affiliations that divide them in favor of the common cause of civil rights. He knows that his status as a Muslim is controversial in the African-American community, and therefore emphasizes the need to put personal feelings about his and other civil rights leaders' religious beliefs aside. It doesn't matter whose God you believe in, he says: you're still black, and your blackness is the reason you're oppressed and violated by the white supremacy.

These northern Democrats are in cahoots with the southern Democrats [applause]. They're playing a giant con game, a political con game. You know how it goes. One of 'em comes to you and make believe he's for you. And he's in cahoots with the other one that's not for you. Why? Because neither one of 'em is for you. But they got to make you go with one of 'em or the other.

Malcolm X, paragraph 52

In this quote, Malcolm X solidifies one of the main points of "The Ballot or the Bullet": neither the Democrats nor the Dixiecrats truly have the best interests of African-Americans at heart. Earlier, he claims that there is no difference between a Dixiecrat and a Democrat, and here, he contends that the two are actually working together to make it seem like the party has as one of its priorities civil rights, when actually, the Democrats are using the Dixiecrats to divert blame from the party as a whole. Neither Republicans nor Democrats are willing to do what is necessary to end black oppression, and the Democrats are more interested in retaining the black vote through conning African-Americans into believing they will institute radical change than in actually instituting that change.

We have injected ourselves into the civil rights struggle. And we intend to expand it from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights. As long as you fight it on the level of civil rights, you're under Uncle Sam's jurisdiction...So our next move is to take the entire civil rights struggle—problem—into the United Nations and let the world see that Uncle Sam is guilty of violating the human rights of 22 million Afro-Americans right down to the year of 1964 and still has the audacity or the nerve to stand up and represent himself as the leader of the free world?

Malcolm X, paragraph 62-64

Here, Malcolm X posits that the next step in the fight against black oppression is to reframe the issue as one of human rights rather than civil rights. If the issue is regarded as one of civil rights, then it is tried in "Uncle Sam's" courts—courts that have already proved to be committed to upholding white supremacy. But if the issue is framed as one of human rights, then the case can be tried in the International Court of the United Nations, as an issue of genocide.

So it's the, it's the ballot or the bullet. Today, our people can see that we're faced with a government conspiracy. This government has failed us. The senators who are filibustering concerning your and my rights, that's the government. Don't say it's southern senators, this is the government. This is a government filibuster.

Malcolm X, paragraph 61

In the concluding paragraphs of his speech, Malcolm X reiterates its central dichotomy: the ballot or the bullet. To use the ballot means to exercise one's voting rights to put a politician in office who will work to end racial oppression. Should the ballot fail, the bullet represents an outright racial revolution, as opposed to the non-violent protests advocated for by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The current government has proved a failure in passing the Civil Rights Bill, he says, and it isn't the fault of a few Dixiecrats filibustering, it's a pervasive issue across both parties.