The Ballot or the Bullet

The Ballot or the Bullet Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Uncle Sam (Symbol)

In "The Ballot or the Bullet," Uncle Sam symbolizes the white supremacy. In common parlance, Uncle Sam refers to a personification of the U.S. Federal Government, or America itself, as a white-haired man in a red, white, and blue three-piece suit and top hat, adorned in stars and stripes. In this speech, Malcolm X paints Uncle Sam as an antagonist to the civil rights movement. Uncle Sam is a hypocritical figure, because he is to blame for the mass violation of African-Americans' rights and still has "the audacity or the nerve to stand up and represent himself as the leader of the free world." Uncle Sam, Malcolm X says, is a criminal himself, who is somehow still running the court system.

Canines (Motif)

Malcolm X repeatedly characterizes politicians as members of the canine family. Southern politicians are "outright political wolves." Northern politicians are "political foxes." These characterizations are meant to emphasize the base, animal quality of politicians' actions, and are meant as a linguistic play on the practice of calling someone a "dog" to suggest that that person is contemptible. The canine motif is further employed to suggest that these contemptible actions have gone unpunished; extending the pun further, Malcolm X suggest that it is African-Americans who consistently end up "in the doghouse."

The Ballot or the Bullet (Motif)

The motif of the ballot or the bullet forms the central dichotomy of the speech. Throughout, Malcolm X characterizes the choice facing African-Americans as one between the ballot—or effective voting practices, and the bullet—or racial revolution. The recurrence of this phrase emphasizes Malcolm X's belief that this is a pivotal historical moment in the struggle for civil rights, and one that will determine the way ahead for his people. In a speech that functions as a call to action, this motif highlights the two methodologies by which change can be achieved.