"The Ballot or the Bullet" served several purposes at a critical point in Malcolm X's life: it was part of his effort to distance himself from the Nation of Islam, and it was intended to reach out to moderate civil rights leaders. At the same time, the speech indicated that Malcolm still supported Black nationalism and self-defense and thus had not made a complete break with his past. "The Ballot or the Bullet" also marked a notable shift in Malcolm X's rhetoric, as he presented previously undiscussed ways of looking at the relationship between blacks and whites.
Separation from the Nation of Islam
In its advocacy of voting, "The Ballot or the Bullet" presented ideas opposite to those of the Nation of Islam, which forbade its members from participating in the political process.
Malcolm also chose not to discuss the religious differences that divide Muslims and Christians, a common theme of his speeches when he was the spokesman for the Nation of Islam. In "The Ballot or the Bullet", Malcolm chose not to discuss religion but rather to stress the experiences common to African Americans of all backgrounds.
When Malcolm X spoke of "the type of Black man on the scene in America today [who] doesn't intend to turn the other cheek any longer", he was addressing his followers, people who were not advocates of the non-violent approach generally favored by the Civil Rights Movement. Likewise, by stating his continued commitment to Black nationalism, Malcolm reassured his followers that he had not made a complete break with his past.
One biographer notes that Malcolm was one of the first African-American leaders to note the existence and growing influence of Black nationalism among young civil rights activists.
"The Ballot or the Bullet" indicates a shift in Malcolm X's rhetoric, as his separation from the Nation of Islam and new, unfettered public activism prompted a change in the ways he addressed his audience. Malcolm X maintained his use of repetition as "communications of the passion that is satisfied by a single statement, but that beats through the pulses", and this can be exemplified by his consistent use of the phrase "the ballot or the bullet". In addition, Malcolm X used his characteristic use of language and imagery to disguise his conceptions of society and history in new ways to put issues into his perspective for his audience and inspire activism. The most significant modification of Malcolm X's rhetoric that can be observed in "The Ballot or the Bullet" is the broadening of his audience, as he "emphasizes individualized judgement rather than group cohesion" and allows for more analytical "flexibility restrained by a purposive focus on particular goals." These changes expanded his appeal, therefore expanding his audience, illustrating his ability to use the freedom he found after separating from the Nation of Islam to his advantage in advancing himself as a member of the Civil Rights Movement.