The Ballot or the Bullet

The Ballot or the Bullet Themes


The issue of racism is at the center of Malcolm X's "The Ballot or the Bullet." Delivered during a Dixiecrat filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, the speech is intimately concerned with the structural oppression of African-Americans and the way in which white supremacy is furthered by the American government. The second-class citizenship that African-Americans have so far endured is tantamount to 20th-century slavery, Malcolm X says, and it has gone on long enough. Whether by effective utilization of the democratic process or by racial revolution, the time for the discrimination that determines and dominates the lives of African-Americans in this country must come to an end, he argues.

Black Nationalism

Malcolm X urges African-Americans to unite through black nationalism. Black nationalism, he believes, is the key to African-Americans' freedom from oppression. Instead of advocating for assimilation, Malcolm X encourages a line of political thought that celebrates black identity and promotes racial uplift through self-government, "a self-help mentality," supporting black-owned and operated businesses that feed money back into the community, and, if necessary, violence against white supremacist efforts to block this uplift. At the time of this speech, Malcolm X had not yet made the journey to Mecca that would change his stance on the necessity for black separatism, and so the speech reflects his belief that the answer to ending white supremacy is not integration and assimilation.


Malcolm X does not believe that America is a true democracy. Rather, he says, it is "a hypocrisy." Though African-Americans are technically allowed to vote, their vote has not been effective in electing leaders whose priority is to end racial injustice. They have been hoodwinked, time and time again, into believing the lies of white politicians who promise one thing and deliver another. Their votes have also been manipulated so as not to count through the use of gerrymandering. A prime example of democracy's failure is the ongoing struggle to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, and the Dixiecrat's filibuster against it. These Dixiecrats belong to the Democratic party, a party that supposedly is for equal rights. Now, in this election year, Malcolm X says that it is more important than ever for African-Americans to expand their political consciousness and use the collective black vote to elect someone who will actually accomplish what he claims he will.


A key theme is the speech is revolution. Should "the ballot" fail, Malcolm X recommends "the bullet," by which he means abandoning peaceful protest for racial revolution. This revolution may necessitate the use of violence. Malcolm X hopes that things will not come to this, but he does deride non-violent forms of protest as disempowering and ineffective. In outright revolution, the forces of white supremacy would not win, Malcolm X says, because of their reliance on the atomic bomb and airstrikes. They no longer have the upper hand when it comes to face-to-face combat. African-Americans know how to fight to survive better than anyone, because they have had to do so repeatedly throughout their lives.