Malcolm on the Ballot or the Bullet
Malcolm X: History and Philosophy
This famous speech is perhaps best viewed as a candid ultimatum. As the race crisis in America escalated in violence and scope; Malcolm X articulated the position of many northern Blacks for which segregation was a non-issue. Coming at a time after his separation with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Elijah Muhammad, the Ballot of the Bullet speech touches on four key themes that illustrate a great transition on Malcolm’s philosophy and political strategy. Underling these four points is bold and terrifying statement in line with a famous Martin Luther King quote; “those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” Malcolm makes it plain; if the white power structure blocks Blacks from utilizing the ballot; then violence will erupt and power will obtained in more tumultuous and bloody ways.
Key Point One: The Political Strength Blacks (How does Malcolm X see himself in terms of politics?) The NOI preached political non-involvement. Elijah Muhammad kept Malcolm from getting Muslims active in the civil rights struggle or from supporting political candidates because separatist ideology declared it counter productive to integrate with ones enemy the so-called devilish white man. But this drew criticism from many black sympathetic to Malcolm’s rhetoric but frustrated with the NOI’s lack of activism. With his break from the NOI Malcolm realigned his priorities and moved to articulate his Black Nationalist views through concrete political action. While this speech is pre-Mecca; thus his distrust of whites remained unchanged; Malcolm admits during this period that before and independent Black nation; (a more long term goal) can be achieved or a repatriation to Africa could be made; there is the immediate plight of Blacks in America who lack social services and are under constant threat of racial violence. Before idealized visions of a true nation can come to pass; in this speech Malcolm makes the demand that since Black built America; America must grant Blacks the rights of its white citizens. Basically Malcolm has realigned himself with the immediate demands of the mainstream civil rights movement as an initial stepping stone to Black Nationalist long term political goals.
In terms of politics; Malcolm understood that with white America evenly divided between Republican and Democrat the Black vote was what swung the race. In this speech Malcolm talks of how Blacks throw away their vote with the false promises of the double dealing politicians who pander to integration minded Blacks during the campaign but do nothing once elected. Malcolm also reminds his listeners that there is no real difference between both parties and logical step would be for Blacks to form a new Black Nationalist Party to run candidates. A fundamental of this speech is that Blacks need to make their votes count; but not necessarily for any of the two established white parties that have always stood on similar ground with race relations.
Key Point Two: Unity Among Civil Rights Leaders (Has there been any change in his reference to mainstream civil rights leaders?) In this speech Malcolm also makes a defacto apology and accepts one without it being stated to and from the other mainstream civil rights leaders. He is humbly stating that his rhetoric has not accomplished concrete political good and that it is time for greater unity among leaders allegedly struggling for the same short term objectives.
Malcolm’s reasoning is that the white power structure discriminates and does violence to Blacks collectively regardless of their religious or ideological creed; therefore it is only sensible that resistance be collective as well. This speech on top of political realignment is a declaration of reconciliation with the other leaders. Malcolm is stating that he will involve is soldiers in civil rights struggle now that the restraints of the NOI have been lifted.
Key Point Three: The African American Condition (How does Malcolm X assess the African American condition?) Malcolm’s phrase “the so-called Negro” is an illustration of his Pan-African thinking well on top of his Black Nationalist ideology. Malcolm seeks not only empower Blacks to assert themselves on the political apparatus; but to reconnect them with their roots via the Global Black struggle.
The condition of Blacks in America according to Malcolm is a state of exploitation, moral degradation, and brainwashing. By brainwashing Malcolm refers to disconnect between Blacks living in America and the heritage as being part of the greater African civilization. Malcolm said that Blacks couldn’t remember that they descended from a once proud African civilization. He said that they didn’t even remember their true names. The condition was based on the psychological trauma inflicted by slavery and enforced by adherence to the Euro-Centric practice of Christianity. By Blacks not being able to vote, by blacks not controlling the economic resources of their communities; and by Black being completely disconnected from their roots; the condition furthered Black oppression.
Point Four: On Elijah Muhammad (Is there mention of Elijah Muhammad?) In all previous speeches Malcolm sought to point attention the Elijah Muhammad’s teachings by bringing all credit for his personal rehabilitation on the man himself and while at the time to this speeches delivery Malcolm X had been cast out of the NOI and was being plotted against by his great mentor and former savior; Malcolm would hold off serious criticism of the man until his property and family were threatened by Elijah Muhammad’s followers. The Ballot of the Bullet makes no mention of Elijah Muhammad and coming right after his establishment of Muslim Mosque Inc., this on top of the political redirection marks beginning (so close to the end of life) of the independence of Malcolm’s political actions. No more is he under the leash of Elijah Muhammad; while whites found him radical and so-called dangerous a Muslim minister orator; that fire turned to political engagement would have had a terrifying impact if he had survived to see it pan out. In essence Elijah Muhammad has restrained Malcolm and with their break, and absence of reference in this keynote speech; implied a new sense of policy and vision on what to do about the race crisis in America.
The Ballot or the Bullet was the question; by 1968 a lot of bullets began to fly. By that time Malcolm and Martin had been assassinated; gunned down for their ideas and respective strategies both under highly questionable circumstances as to who orchestrated the murders. Out of the civil rights movement grew the Black Power movement and out of Black Power arose the Black Panther Party for Self Defense directly from the nationalist ideology of Malcolm X. And bullets flew. This speech predicted the massive eruption of violence around the country, especially in the northern ghettos which reached a peak in 1969 with the murder of Panther leader Fred Hampton. We are not going to make a statement as to whether this violence obtained any more political freedom than subsequent attempts at the ballot. But the Black vote still wasn’t an organized by 1970 and it isn’t organized in 2006. And after all that perhaps brother Malcolm isn’t looking down and wondering if Black people, and the American people in general, might need to offer up the same scenario again.