The Ballot Or The Bullet Summary

Malcolm X

The Ballot Or The Bullet

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The Ballot Or The Bullet Summary

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In his iconic speech “The Ballot or the Bullet,” African-American civil rights leader Malcolm X reviews historic and current impediments in place to keep black people from voting and suggests that if these obstructions continue, black people should arm themselves against these dehumanizing forces. Delivered on April 3, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio, many historians consider it one of the most urgent, relevant, and trenchant speeches in US history.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” was delivered during a politically fraught time. The previous summer, John F. Kennedy had sent a Civil Rights Act to Congress that would ban political disenfranchisement based on race; many southern representatives opposed the bill, which did not pass to become law. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and his predecessor, Lyndon B. Johnson, took up the bill. After many negotiations, the bill passed the House, but still needed approval from the Senate. While the Senate deliberated the bill, Malcolm X delivered this speech.

The speaker begins by welcoming the many friendly faces he sees, and outlining how he’ll reply to the night’s big question, “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go from Here.” His response is the ballot or the bullet, and he spends the next fifty-three minutes unpacking what he means by this.

Malcolm X says that he still considers himself a Muslim, even though he left the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist group that believed in separation from white people rather than integration. He has become more willing to join the cause of Martin Luther King Jr., a Christian minister who supports integration because he believes the black community should look at the bigger picture of equal rights and not quibble over their differences.

He is glad to see that the 22 million black people in America in 1964 are “waking up” and realizing that to be born in America isn’t enough to be treated like an American. It is an election year; he is urging black people to use their votes to advance civil rights and not to be fooled by certain politicians who only pay lip service to the idea.

Malcolm X mentions that he was visiting Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1964, when he observed the Civil Rights Act being debated in the Senate. While the bill was supported by a majority of senators, it was delayed because of senior senators in sub-committees who had held their position for a long time because black people in their states were successfully kept from voting. Malcolm X says this is unacceptable; he suggests that any representative from a state where voting rights are not universally respected should be thrown out of Congress.

Malcolm X maintains that if these rights are not expected, black people will have to take up arms to fight for their rights. He urges the larger civil rights movement to take some lessons from the Black Nationalist movement and stop compromising for their inherent rights. Another lesson black people should learn from Black Nationalism is that they should play a large role in politics, especially in regard to their own community.

Historically, black people have been treated without respect while they have provided free labor to the U.S. for centuries and been recruited to fight several wars. Malcolm X says that African-Americans have made more than a justified contribution to the success of the United States and absolutely deserve equal rights to their white peers.

Southern senators (known as Dixiecrats) who continue to uphold segregation are breaking the law, Malcolm X says, referring to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown V. Board of Education. When the government and the police department refuse to uphold laws of equality, Malcolm X asserts that black people must find alternative routes to equality. They should not preclude the possibility of being violent. As he says, “I’m nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me.”

He distinguishes between human rights and civil rights. He suggests the civil rights movement should be interpreted as a fight for human rights, as those are God-given rights all individuals are born with. When the struggle is considered a human rights issue, one “can take Uncle Sam before a world court.” Appealing to world justice is more effective than protesting in Washington D.C., as leaders in D.C. are all, sometimes unconsciously, strategizing against black people.

Somewhat in jest, Malcolm X says that African-Americans or “Negros” should simply say they are African. He tells an anecdote about a dark man he knows who walked into a segregated restaurant with a headscarf on; because he was wearing a turban and looked African, he was served. The waitress said that if he were African-American, he probably would lack the courage to enter the establishment and would definitely not be served.

Malcolm X says that black people need to reinvest in their community by supporting black business owners and starting up vital institutions such as banks. He urges his audience to fully support individuals and institutions that are busy “preaching and practicing the gospel of Black Nationalism”; that is, any source that supports “the uplift of the black man.”

He reiterates that black people should not hesitate to use force when they are attacked, referencing the Birmingham, Alabama bombing in September 1963 perpetrated by the KKK, which killed four little black girls as they were walking into church on Sunday.

Two months after this speech, after much bitter debate, the Civil Rights Act passed the Senate 73-27. The arguments against the act included several filibuster sessions by southern representatives, some which lasted nearly fifteen hours. President Johnson signed it into law on July 2, 1964.