The Ballot or the Bullet

The speech

Malcolm X began his speech by acknowledging that he was still a Muslim, but he quickly added that he didn't intend to discuss religion or any other issues that divide African Americans. Instead, he was going to emphasize the common experience of African Americans of all faiths:

It's time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem — a problem that will make you catch hell whether you're a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist. Whether you're educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley, you're going to catch hell just like I am.[8]

The ballot

Malcolm X noted that 1964 was an election year, a year "when all of the white political crooks will be right back in your and my community ... with their false promises which they don't intend to keep".[9] He said that President Johnson and the Democratic Party claimed to support the civil rights bill, and the Democrats controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but they had not taken genuine action to pass the bill. Instead, he said, the Democrats blamed the Dixiecrats, who were "nothing but Democrat[s] in disguise". He accused the Democrats of playing a "political con game", with African Americans as its victims.[10]

Malcolm said that African Americans were becoming "politically mature" and recognizing that, through unity and nonalignment, they could be the swing vote in the coming elections and elect candidates who would be attentive to their concerns:

What does this mean? It means that when white people are evenly divided, and Black people have a bloc of votes of their own, it is left up to them to determine who's going to sit in the White House and who's going to be in the dog house.[11]

Malcolm described how potent a weapon the ballot could be, if it was exercised with care:

A ballot is like a bullet. You don't throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.[12]

The government

Although he advocated exercising the ballot, Malcolm X expressed skepticism that voting would bring about full equality for African Americans. The government, he said, "is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of Black people in this country.... This government has failed the Negro".[13]

According to Malcolm, one of the ways in which the government had "failed the Negro" was its unwillingness to enforce the law. He pointed out that the Supreme Court had outlawed segregation,

"Whenever you are going after something that is yours, you are within your legal rights to lay claim to it. And anyone who puts forth any effort to deprive you of that which is yours, is breaking the law, is a criminal. And this was pointed out by the Supreme Court decision. It outlawed segregation. Which means a segregationist is breaking the law".[14]

But, he said, the police department and local government often sided with segregationists against the Civil Rights Movement.[14]

Malcolm said that relying on the federal government to force local governments to obey civil rights laws was futile. "When you take your case to Washington, D.C., you're taking it to the criminal who's responsible; it's like running from the wolf to the fox. They're all in cahoots together".[15]

Human rights

The proper solution, Malcolm X said, was to elevate the struggle of African Americans from one of civil rights to one of human rights. A fight for civil rights was a domestic matter, and "no one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle".[16]

Malcolm said that changing the fight for African-American equality to a human rights issue changed it from a domestic problem to an international matter that could be heard by the United Nations. He contrasted civil rights, which he described as "asking Uncle Sam to treat you right", to human rights, which he called "your God-given rights" and "the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth".[15] He said that the people of the developing world were "sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side" if the fight for civil rights were expanded into a human rights struggle.[15]

Black nationalism

Malcolm X described his continued commitment to black nationalism, which he defined as the philosophy that African Americans should govern their own communities. He said that Black nationalists believe that African Americans should control the politics and the economy in their communities and that they need to remove the vices, such as alcoholism and drug addiction, that afflict their communities.[17]

Malcolm said that the philosophy of Black nationalism was being taught in the major civil rights organizations, including the NAACP, CORE, and SNCC.[12]

Black nationalism was characterized by its political, social, and economic philosophies. The political philosophy is self-government. The local governments of the African-American communities should be managed by African Americans. African Americans should be "re-educated into the science of politics" in order to understand the importance and effect of the vote they cast.[12]

Don't be throwing out any ballots. A ballot is like a bullet. You don't throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.[12]

The economic philosophy of black nationalism promotes African-American control of the economy of the African-American community. In frequenting stores not owned by an African American, the money is given to another community. The dollar is taken from the African-American community and given to outsiders. In doing so, the African-American community loses money and becomes poorer while the community the dollar was given to gains money and becomes richer. Therefore, stores in the African-American community should be run by African Americans.

Then you wonder why where you live is always a ghetto or a slum area. And where you and I are concerned, not only do we lose it when we spend it out of the community, but the white man has got all our stores in the community tied up; so that though we spend it in the community, at sundown the man who runs the store takes it over across town somewhere.[18]

The social philosophy of black nationalism advocates for reform of the community and reconstruction of it so it is more welcoming.

We ourselves have to lift the level of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful so that we will be satisfied in our own circles and won't be running around here try to knock our way into a social circle where we're not wanted.[18]

Most of all, Malcolm promoted unity.

We've got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to see each other as brothers and sisters. We have to come together with warmth so we can develop unity and harmony that's necessary to get this problem solved ourselves.[19]


Malcolm X addressed the issue of "rifles and shotguns", a controversy that had dogged him since his March 8 announcement that he had left the Nation of Islam.[20] He reiterated his position that if the government is "unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes", African Americans should defend themselves.[21] He advised his listeners to be mindful of the law — "This doesn't mean you're going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks ... that would be illegal and we don't do anything illegal" — but he said that if white people didn't want African Americans to arm themselves, the government should do its job.[21]

The bullet

Malcolm X referred to "the type of Black man on the scene in America today [who] doesn't intend to turn the other cheek any longer",[9] and warned that if politicians failed to keep their promises to African Americans, they made violence inevitable:

It's time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we're supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don't cast a ballot, it's going to end up in a situation where we're going to have to cast a bullet. It's either a ballot or a bullet.[22]

Malcolm predicted that if the civil rights bill wasn't passed, there would be a march on Washington in 1964. Unlike the 1963 March on Washington, which was peaceful and integrated, the 1964 march Malcolm described would be an all-Black "non-nonviolent army" with one-way tickets.[23]

But, Malcolm said, there was still time to prevent this situation from developing:

Lyndon B. Johnson is the head of the Democratic Party. If he's for civil rights, let him go into the Senate next week and ... denounce the Southern branch of his party. Let him go in there right now and take a moral stand — right now, not later. Tell him, don't wait until election time. If he waits too long ... he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of. In 1964, it's the ballot or the bullet.[23]

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