In “The Ballot or the Bullet” (1964), Malcolm X advocates fighting for racial, economic, and social justice on all fronts, and he does not want religion to stand in the way of justice. He noted that many preachers, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are most known for their work for justice—not their religious vocations. X contends that Islam is his personal business. He finds that religious differences can hinder solidarity. X calls for keeping religion private: it should be between the person and his or her God.
Brother X posits that when we keep religion private, we’re able to join together in a common fight against a common enemy. Religion will keep us fighting one another, instead of our common enemy. X desires for the Black community to discontinue supporting White politicians and he wants that support to be redirected to Black political leaders. Brother X does not want the Black community to endorse Black political leaders who have been bought and paid for by White political leaders.
The speech has a strong concern with explaining the political philosophy of Black nationalism. It establishes a practical understanding of the political philosophy of Black nationalism. For Brother Malcolm, the political philosophy of Black nationalism is about evolving a healthy Black community that relies on its Black membership for economic sufficiency and that refuses to be manipulated by Whites. The speech posits that until Black people become politically mature, they will continue to be misled into voting for politicians who do not have the Black community’s best interests at heart.
X also describes the economic philosophy of Black nationalism, which calls for Black people to control their own economic wealth. Brother Malcolm believes Blacks need to spend their money only in the communities in which they live. When they spend their money in communities outside of the ones in which they reside, those communities become richer and the Black communities become poorer. He believes a reeducation of Black people must take place in order for them to comprehend how to build and maintain wealth within the Black community. X entreats Black people to stop giving White people their money and invest their money within the Black community. Because Black people have not been creating their own stores, they have made it possible for White men to establish stores in Black neighborhoods, thus making those White men richer each day.
Brother Malcolm emphasizes that Black people are “trapped” in an economic system and mindset that does not profit them. He, therefore, offers them the economic and political philosophy of Black nationalism to help dismantle the economic imprisonment they have allowed White people to cause them to unconsciously embrace. The speech does not simply call for Black people to develop little stores, but to expand these stores into much larger operations, larger operations inevitably having a national reach. He calls for Black people to go into business and support Black businesses. When Black people start businesses, they are able to employ Black people. He does not want Black people to have to rely on their oppressors for jobs.
X questions the power of religion to help Black people fight their oppressors. Black people need to focus on actions to combat oppression and leave religion “in the closet.” He proclaims it’s time to “stop singing and start swinging.” For X, you cannot “sing” your way to freedom but you can “swing” your way to freedom.
The speech asserts that White liberals and government have failed Black people. Blacks should turn to themselves and not others. They must realize liberation will come from their own efforts. He champions a self-help philosophy for Black progression. X contends that Black nationalism is a self-help philosophy.
The speech is in opposition to “sit-ins,” “boycotting” and marching around singing “We Shall Overcome”—X’s clever critiques of Kingian philosophy. Malcolm declares that White politicians don’t come into Black neighborhoods until election time. X states that Blacks have not benefitted from America’s democracy—they have been victimized by American hypocrisy. Malcolm discloses that Blacks have not experienced the American Dream—they’ve experienced an American nightmare.
The speech explains the power of Black people voting as a unified group. When Blacks vote as a unified group, they determine who gets elected, considering Whites are split between the Democratic and Republican candidates for President. X says Black people put Democrats first and Democrats put them last. Blacks have allowed this to happen because they’re “chumps,” “a political chump.” He posits that continuing to back a political party that has the means to significantly benefit you, but refuses to make you a priority means you’re “a traitor to your race.”
He asserts there has never been a non-violent revolution—not even in Hollywood. Again, this is a direct attack on the non-violent philosophy of Dr. King. He implores Black people to take the fight beyond civil rights and expand it to human rights. X intends to take the civil rights struggle to the United Nations to let the world know America is guilty of genocide and human rights violations.
The speech champions Black nationalism as the key to Black economic and social progression.
X encourages Black people to join churches and organizations that promote Black uplift, and he warns them about Black churches and organizations that promote White nationalism. Churches and organizations employing White nationalism can be recognized by their espousal of things counterproductive to Black uplift and solidarity.
Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison
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