"The Ballot or the Bullet" opens by addressing the differences in religious beliefs that divide the African-American community. Malcolm X, a Muslim, credits Elijah Muhammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam, with making him into the man he is today. Malcolm X is the minister of Muslim Mosque Incorporated, just like Martin Luther King and Adam Clayton Powell are both Christian ministers. Though he holds different religious beliefs from King and Powell, all three men are united by their prodigious work as civil rights advocates. He declares that religion is a personal matter, not a political one. He is not here today to discuss his relationship with God, but to speak about black nationalism.
Malcolm X defines black nationalism as the philosophy that African-Americans “should control the politics and the politicians in (their) own community.” Economically, it means frequenting African-American owned and operated businesses, whose profit will feed back into the black community and strengthen it. He declares himself to be “a black nationalist freedom fighter.”
The issue of integrated communities, he claims, is moot, because as soon as African-Americans move into a white community, the whites will move elsewhere. As such, African-Americans must endeavor to educate themselves on which politicians will best serve the aims of the civil rights movement.
Being a black nationalist, Malcolm X says, does not require you to give up any of your personal organizational affiliations. You can subscribe to whichever religious beliefs you’d like, and remain a member of whichever civic organizations you’d like.
Malcolm X juxtaposes black nationalism with the non-violent philosophy of advocates like Martin Luther King Jr., who favor peaceful protest, which Malcolm denounces as passive. Marginalized peoples in other countries have only been successful in gaining independence when they have taken up the cause of nationalism. Second-class citizenship, such as is held by the African-American community, is tantamount to 20th-century slavery, says Malcolm.
According to Malcolm X, 1964 is the year of the ballot or the bullet not only because it is the year of what he considers a failed march on Washington, but because it is an election year, and because there is a new generation of African-Americans who are no longer willing to be subjugated.
The history of America is one of colonialism; Malcolm likens the colonists’ struggle against the British to that of African-Americans against white supremacy.
Malcolm X warns African-Americans against the white politicians that will come into their communities (for the first and last time, he suggests) and make false promises of equality. He explains that he does not subscribe to either the Democratic or the Republican party, because he considers himself “a victim of America’s so-called democracy.” For African-Americans, there is no American dream, only an American nightmare. It doesn’t matter, he says, if you go to jail, because black people are already there.
The African-American community has enormous political power, Malcolm X claims, if they vote as one. The white community is divided by its party affiliations, and as such, elections are often so close that there is cause for a recount. If the black community throws their support behind a single candidate, as they did behind Kennedy, that candidate will win.
At the start of "The Ballot or the Bullet," Malcolm X dispenses with the divisive issue of religion in favor of the common cause of civil rights. He likens his status as a Muslim to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s as a Christian, knowing that in the past, his own religious affiliation has been a point of contention; he and Dr. King may have different ways of worshipping, but they are both known as civil rights leaders. Religious differences, he worries, might hinder solidarity in the African-American community.
This downplaying of his religion reverberates in the context of a speech advocating for political engagement. The Nation of Islam, as led by Elijah Muhammed, forbade its members from participating in political processes. Earlier in the year, Malcolm X, once an outspoken follower of Elijah Muhammed, declared his separation from the Nation of Islam and realigned himself with the civil rights movement. In these opening paragraphs, Malcolm X calls for increased political participation and awareness in the black community. This marks a meaningful divide between Malcolm X’s ethos and the ethos of the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm provides an economic summary of black nationalism: African-Americans should buy from African-American owned and operated businesses so as to feed the prosperity of their own communities and “lift the level…to a higher level…so that we will be satisfied in our own circles and won’t be running around here to knock our way into a social circle where we’re not wanted.” This economic attitude is in keeping with the larger social and political attitudes of separatism that marked black nationalism, which claimed that integration would only result in further oppression of black peoples and advocated, as the name suggests, for entirely separate and self-governed communities.
In this first section of the speech, Malcolm relies on appealing to the pride of the African-American community, particularly through language centering on the emasculation of black peoples and the necessity of relying on brute force over peaceful protest. Relying on peaceful protests such as sit-ins “castrates” the black man, says Malcolm. Sit-ins are disempowering because they perpetuate the image of the African-American community as cowardly and weak. If gaming the political system doesn’t work, he recommends African-Americans turn to outright revolution. “Well, you and I been sitting long enough,” he claims, “and it’s time for us today to start doing some standing and some fighting to back that up.”
Malcolm X frequently uses provocative language to incite anger in his audience, as is evident in his accusation that the white man has “made a fool out of you.” Here, he is utilizing the rhetorical device of pathos, or appealing to the audience’s emotions, to his advantage. Insulting his listener is meant to stoke the listener’s sense of anger and injustice, and therefore to provoke him into more direct action against white supremacy than the peaceful protests advocated for by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are able to do.
Malcolm X invokes one American dream while condemning another. The white man didn’t know what he was doing when he let black children read about “liberty or death” in his history books, he says. Like the colonists, Malcolm X is ready to fight tooth and nail for the liberation of his community, whether that means using his vote advantageously or participating in outright revolution. George Washington and Patrick Henry didn’t win the American revolution, the soldiers did. So too will the black community win by force, and not by peaceful protest.
Meanwhile, the American dream of equal opportunity is not one that applies to African-Americans. The black man is not born free, he is “born in jail,” victim of structural oppression and to the hypocrisy of a government that claims to represent the interests of all Americans. Everything south of the Canadian border is the South, he jokes. In one of many clever turns of phrase, Malcolm employs both humor and repetition to rename the situation facing African-Americans as “an American nightmare.”