Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” April 12, 1964
Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.
- Use this primary source with the Black Power Narrative to discuss the call for violence in the African American civil rights movement.
Amid a trend of increasing violence against civil rights workers and supporters, many activists became skeptical of the multiracial, nonviolent approach espoused by Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). New leaders offering a more militant message began to emerge, including Malcolm X. Though Malcolm X respected King as a “fellow leader of our people,” he criticized King’s integrationist and nonviolent message and promoted a philosophy of black nationalism, which was centered on economic self-sufficiency, racial pride, and separatism. In developing this philosophy, Malcolm X was influenced by his one-time mentor and leader, Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, who advocated a separate state for African Americans. On April 12, 1964, a presidential election year, Malcolm X delivered a speech to a large audience gathered at King Solomon Baptist Church, in Detroit, Michigan. His speech became known for a phrase he repeated throughout: “the ballot or the bullet.” Despite the simplicity of this phrase, his message was much more complex and resonated with many who were disillusioned by the repeated responses of brutality and racism against nonviolent protest.
- Who is the speaker in this source?
- Briefly explain the idea of black nationalism with regard to achieving full civil rights for African Americans.
|Although I’m still a Muslim: Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in March 1964 over a disagreement with its founder and his one-time mentor, Elijah Muhammad.||Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try and change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because 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. We’re all in the same boat and we all are going to catch the same hell from the same man. He just happens to be a white man. All of us have suffered here, in this country, political oppression at the hands of the white man, economic exploitation at the hands of the white man, and social degradation at the hands of the white man.|
|agnostic (n): one who neither believes nor disbelieves in God
the late President Kennedy could get together with Khrushchev and exchange some wheat: President John F. Kennedy of the United States and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union met in 1961 in Vienna, Austria.
|Now in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us. Whether we are Christians or Muslims or nationalists or agnostics or atheists, we must first learn to forget our differences. If we have differences, let us differ in the closet; when we come out in front, let us not have anything to argue about until we get finished arguing with the man. If the late President Kennedy could get together with Khrushchev and exchange some wheat, we certainly have more in common with each other than Kennedy and Khrushchev had with each other.|
|If we don’t do something real soon, I think you’ll have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It’s one or the other in 1964. It isn’t that time is running out—time has run out!|
|jive (v): to say unserious things to a person; to fool them||1964 threatens to be the most explosive year America has ever witnessed. The most explosive year. Why? It’s also a political year. It’s the year when all of the white politicians will be back in the so-called Negro community jiving you and me for some votes. The year when all of the white political crooks will be right back in your and my community with their false promises, building up our hopes for a letdown, with their trickery and their treachery, with their false promises which they don’t intend to keep. As they nourish these dis satisfactions, it can only lead to one thing, an explosion; and now we have the type of black man on the scene in America today . . . who just doesn’t intend to turn the other cheek any longer. . . .|
|I’m not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I’m not a student of much of anything. I’m not a Democrat. I’m not a Republican, and I don’t even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there’d be no problem. . . . Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren’t Americans yet.|
|delude (v): impose a misleading belief
filibustering (n): an action such as prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legislative assembly
|Well, I am one who doesn’t believe in deluding myself. I’m not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn’t make you a diner, unless you eat some of what’s on that plate. Being here in America doesn’t make you an American. Being born here in America doesn’t make you an American. Why, if birth made you American, you wouldn’t need any legislation; you wouldn’t need any amendments to the Constitution; you wouldn’t be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C., right now. They don’t have to pass civil-rights legislation to make a Polack an American.|
|No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver—no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.. . .|
|So it’s time in 1964 to wake up. And when you see them coming up with that kind of conspiracy, let them know your eyes are open. And let them know you—something else that’s wide open too. It’s got to be the ballot or the bullet. The ballot or the bullet. If you’re afraid to use an expression like that, you should get on out of the country; you should get back in the cotton patch; you should get back in the alley. They get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return. . . .|
|. . . In the back of the room where the Senate meets, there’s a huge map of the United States, and on that map it shows the location of Negroes throughout the country. And it shows that the Southern section of the country, the states that are most heavily concentrated with Negroes, are the ones that have senators and congressmen standing up filibustering and doing all other kinds of trickery to keep the Negro from being able to vote. This is pitiful. But it’s not pitiful for us any longer; it’s actually pitiful for the white man, because soon now, as the Negro awakens a little more and sees the vise that he’s in, sees the bag that he’s in, sees the real game that he’s in, then the Negro’s going to develop a new tactic.|
|These senators and congressmen actually violate the constitutional amendments that guarantee the people of that particular state or county the right to vote. And the Constitution itself has within it the machinery to expel any representative from a state where the voting rights of the people are violated. You don’t even need new legislation. . . .|
|I say again, I’m not anti-Democrat, I’m not anti-Republican, I’m not anti-anything. I’m just questioning their sincerity, and some of the strategy that they’ve been using on our people by promising them promises that they don’t intend to keep. When you keep the Democrats in power, you’re keeping the Dixiecrats in power. . . . A vote for a Democrat is a vote for a Dixiecrat. That’s why, in 1964, 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.|
|gerrymandering (n): manipulating the boundaries||In the North, they do it a different way. They have a system that’s known as gerrymandering, whatever that means. It means when Negroes become too heavily concentrated in a certain area, and begin to gain too much political power, the white man comes along and changes the district lines. You may say, “Why do you keep saying white man?” Because it’s the white man who does it. I haven’t ever seen any Negro changing any lines. They don’t let him get near the line. It’s the white man who does this. And usually, it’s the white man who grins at you the most, and pats you on the back, and is supposed to be your friend. He may be friendly, but he’s not your friend.|
|finagle (v): obtain by devious or dishonest means||So, what I’m trying to impress upon you, in essence, is this: You and I in America are faced not with a segregationist conspiracy, we’re faced with a government conspiracy. Everyone who’s filibustering is a senator—that’s the government. Everyone who’s finagling in Washington, D.C., is a congressman—that’s the government. You don’t have anybody putting blocks in your path but people who are a part of the government. The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don’t need to go to the employer alone, it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.|
|So, where do we go from here? First, we need some friends. We need some new allies. The entire civil-rights struggle needs a new interpretation, a broader interpretation. We need to look at this civil-rights thing from another angle—from the inside as well as from the outside. To those of us whose philosophy is black nationalism, the only way you can get involved in the civil-rights struggle is give it a new interpretation. That old interpretation excluded us. It kept us out. So, we’re giving a new interpretation to the civil-rights struggle, an interpretation that will enable us to come into it, take part in it. And these handkerchief-heads who have been dillydallying and pussy footing and compromising—we don’t intend to let them pussyfoot and dillydally and compromise any longer. . . .|
|jurisdiction (n): the official power to make legal decisions or judgments||When you expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can then take the case of the black man in this country before the nations in the UN. You can take it before the General Assembly. You can take Uncle Sam before a world court. But the only level you can do it on is the level of human rights. Civil rights keeps you under his restrictions, under his jurisdiction. Civil rights keeps you in his pocket. Civil rights means you’re asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth. And any time anyone violates your human rights, you can take them to the world court.|
|We Shall Overcome: a protest song rooted in African American hymns. The song was widely considered to be the civil rights movement’s unofficial anthem.||Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of the black man in this country. He’s the earth’s number-one hypocrite. He has the audacity—yes, he has—imagine him posing as the leader of the free world. The free world! And you over here singing “ We Shall Overcome.” Expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights. Take it into the United Nations, where our African brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Asian brothers can throw their weight on our side, where our Latin-American brothers can throw their weight on our side, and where 800 million Chinamen are sitting there waiting to throw their weight on our side.|
|Let the world know how bloody his hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet. Let him know that it must be the ballot or the bullet.|
|chicanery(n): the use of trickery to achieve a political advantage||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. They all work political chicanery and make you look like a chump before the eyes of the world. Here you are walking around in America, getting ready to be drafted and sent abroad, like a tin soldier, and when you get over there, people ask you what are you fighting for, and you have to stick your tongue in your cheek. No, take Uncle Sam to court, take him before the world. . . .|
|Last but not least, I must say this concerning the great controversy over rifles and shotguns. The only thing that I’ve ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks, although you’d be within your rights—I mean, you’d be justified; but that would be illegal and we don’t do anything illegal. . . .|
|begrudge(v): envy someone or the enjoyment of something
but four little girls while they were praying to the same God the white man taught them to pray to: a reference to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing by the KKK in September 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Four young black girls died in the explosion.
|. . . So, this doesn’t mean forming rifle clubs and going out looking for people, but it is time, in 1964, if you are a man, to let that man know. If he’s not going to do his job in running the government and providing you and me with the protection that our taxes are supposed to be for, since he spends all those billions for his defense budget, he certainly can’t begrudge you and me spending $12 or $15 for a single-shot, or double-action. I hope you understand. Don’t go out shooting people, but any time—brothers and sisters, and especially the men in this audience; some of you wearing Congressional Medals of Honor, with shoulders this wide, chests this big, muscles that big—any time you and I sit around and read where they bomb a church and murder in cold blood, not some grownups, but four little girls while they were praying to the same God the white man taught them to pray to, and you and I see the government go down and can’t find who did it.|
|Eichmann: Adolph Eichmann was a Nazi who administered concentration camps and a major organizer of the Holocaust. He escaped from U.S. forces in 1945 and ultimately fled to Argentina. He was captured by Israeli intelligence officers, brought to trial, and executed in 1962.||Why, this man—he can find Eichmann hiding down in Argentina somewhere. Let two or three American soldiers, who are minding somebody else’s business way over in South Vietnam, get killed, and he’ll send battleships, sticking his nose in their business. He wanted to send troops down to Cuba and make them have what he calls free elections—this old cracker who doesn’t have free elections in his own country.|
|No, if you never see me another time in your life, if I die in the morning, I’ll die saying one thing: the ballot or the bullet, the ballot or the bullet.|
|If a Negro in 1964 has to sit around and wait for some cracker senator to filibuster when it comes to the rights of black people, why, you and I should hang our heads in shame. You talk about a march on Washington in 1963, you haven’t seen anything. There’s some more going down in ’64.|
|And this time they’re not going like they went last year. They’re not going singing “We Shall Overcome.” They’re not going with white friends. They’re not going with placards already painted for them. They’re not going with round-trip tickets. They’re going with one way tickets. And if they don’t want that non-nonviolent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt.|
|The black nationalists aren’t going to wait. 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 declare himself. Let him go in there right now and declare himself. Let him go in there 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, brothers and sisters, 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.|
- What was the main problem that all African Americans, regardless of background, faced?
- How did Malcolm X respond to the charge that he was anti-white?
- Briefly explain this analogy in your own words.
- Briefly explain this analogy in your own words.
- Why was 1964 an important year?
- What did Malcolm X think of politicians?
- Why didn’t Malcolm X consider himself an American?
- Why did Malcolm X see an American nightmare instead of an American dream?
- Why did Malcolm X say that no new legislation was needed to guarantee African American men the right to vote?
- According to Malcolm X, who was ultimately to blame for the plight of black people?
- Why did the Civil Rights movement need a new interpretation, and what interpretation did Malcolm X offer?
- Explain how Malcom X distinguished between civil and human rights.
- What benefit would expanding the definition of civil rights have for the struggle?
- What solution does Malcom X propose?
- In what instances did Malcolm X believe violence was appropriate? How does he connect this to the Constitution?
- What three foreign policy examples did Malcolm X use to point out the hypocrisy of the U.S. government?
- Who does Malcolm X refer to in this line? What is his tone? How do you know?
- What other famous speech was given at this march in Washington in 1963? What does Malcolm X mean when he says “You haven’t seen anything?”
Historical Reasoning Questions
- Malcolm X was a dynamic and charismatic speaker. Explain one example of an effective analogy he uses to illustrate his message.
- At the beginning of this speech, Malcolm X states that “1964 threatens to be the most explosive year America has ever witnessed.” What events occurred in the country during this year that would lead him to say this?
- Compare Malcolm X’s speech with Martin Luther King Jr.’s writing in the Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” 1963 Primary Source. How are they similar? Different? How do they reveal rifts in the civil rights movement by 1964?
“The Ballot or the Bullet” speech http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/malcolm_x_ballot.html