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As young Black people have married their newfound activism with political awareness, many have found themselves looking to the past for guidance. They've become disillusioned. They've become dissatisfied. And all of this has built up frustrations in the Black community that makes the black community throughout America today more explosive than all of the atomic bombs the Russians can ever invent.
I believe any current potential presidential candidate who is seriously interested in engaging with the Black community for the election a field that, at the moment, appears to be composed only of Democratic candidates should closely examine "The Ballot or the Bullet.
The speech, over 50 years old, offers an opportunity to understand the overt realities and nuanced understandings of the role of the Black community in the American political process.
What Malcolm advocated in his speech was an approach to politics centered on using the ballot as a weapon, like a bullet, to achieve systemic change. One month earlier, he had left the Nation of Islam, which discouraged its members from working alongside civil-rights activists.
America was being governed by Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, who took office following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and was running for office touting the Civil Rights Act of , which, along with the Voting Rights Act of , would eventually give Black people unburdened access to the vote after a brutal, decades-long fight. Black Americans faced widespread political disenfranchisement and outright violence in their demand for voting rights.
Just six months before Malcolm delivered his speech, four little Black girls were bombed to death in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. It wasn't just a request for justice; it was a call for revolution. It's liberty or it's death. It's freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody…. A revolution is bloody, but America is in a unique position. She's the only country in history in the position actually to become involved in a bloodless revolution….
All she's got to do is give the Black man in this country everything that's due him. In his speech, Malcolm continually stressed the importance of the election as the future of the Civil Rights Act hung in the balance between President Johnson, who eventually won the Democratic nomination, and Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate who opposed the legislation. For Black folks, the election is just as critical of a year as was, as preventing the reelection of Donald Trump and his continued dismantling of facets of that very same Civil Rights Act takes center stage.
Which means that any bloc, any minority that has a bloc of votes that stick together, is in a strategic position. As Malcolm stressed in his speech, the Black voting bloc is crucial.
While Black voters largely railed against Trump's campaign of bigotry, Black voter turnout dropped in the presidential election from the two elections prior. Oftentimes, presidential candidates, both Black and white, Democrat and Republican, can have a hard time connecting with the Black community in a substantive way.
The brilliance of the speech is how Malcolm managed to speak to the soul of the community in a manner that was specific enough to profoundly resonate, yet broad enough not to alienate. Any Democratic presidential candidate hoping to engage with Black voters should understand that the feeling of being underwhelmed by the prioritization of policies that specifically help our community is as true today as it was in If that can't be delivered, the party risks alienating the 4.
So why do I feel this is an instructive speech for a presidential candidate in ? Because not only are many of the same social ills still prevalent today but because Malcolm's greatest attribute was speaking to the rawest yearnings of the Black community.
That was apparent when year-old Mariah Parker was sworn into public office in Georgia on a copy of Malcolm X's autobiography instead of a Bible after her election in Get the Teen Vogue Take. Sign up for the Teen Vogue weekly email. Related: Martin Luther King Jr. Keywords malcolm x do better.
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In the speech, which was delivered on April 3, , at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland , Ohio ,  [a] Malcolm X advised African Americans to judiciously exercise their right to vote, but he cautioned that if the government continued to prevent African Americans from attaining full equality, it might be necessary for them to take up arms.
It was ranked 7th in the top American speeches of the 20th century by leading scholars of American public address. On March 8, , Malcolm X announced his separation from the Nation of Islam , a black nationalist religious organization for which he had been the spokesman for nearly a decade.
Whereas the Civil Rights Movement advocated on behalf of integration and against segregation , the Nation of Islam favored separatism.
One of the goals of the Civil Rights Movement was to end disenfranchisement of African Americans, but the Nation of Islam forbade its members from participating in the political process. In June , President John F. Kennedy sent Congress a civil rights bill. The bill proposed a ban on discrimination based on race, religion, sex, or national origin in jobs and public accommodations.
Southern Democrats , sometimes called Dixiecrats, blocked the bill from consideration by the House of Representatives. Johnson threw his support behind the civil rights bill. The bill was passed by the House on February 10, , and sent to the Senate for consideration.
Southern Democrats had promised to oppose the bill. 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. Malcolm X noted that was an election year, a year "when all of the white political crooks will be right back in your and my community 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. 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. 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.
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".
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,. 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".
But, he said, the police department and local government often sided with segregationists against the Civil Rights Movement. Malcolm said that relying on the federal government to force local governments to obey civil rights laws was futile. They're all in cahoots together". 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".
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".
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.
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.
Don't be throwing out any ballots. 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.
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.
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.
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. 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",  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. Malcolm predicted that if the civil rights bill wasn't passed, there would be a march on Washington in Unlike the March on Washington , which was peaceful and integrated, the march Malcolm described would be an all-Black "non-nonviolent army" with one-way tickets.
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 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 In , it's the ballot or the bullet. 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.
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. 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.
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Clip from "The Ballot or the Bullet". Further information: Civil Rights Act of Recordings and transcriptions of both speeches are widely available. University of Wisconsin-Madison. Retrieved April 17, December 15, At his press conference, Malcolm X said that "in areas where our people are the constant victims of brutality, and the government seems unable or unwilling to protect them, we should form rifle clubs that can be used to defend our lives and our property in times of emergency".
Malcolm X Speaks , p. Columbia University Forum. Journal of Black Studies. Spring Rhetoric and Public Affairs. Cone, James H. Maryknoll, N. Malcolm X .