(Photo Credit: Atlanta BlackStar)
In “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X (1964) advocates for racial, economic, and social justice, 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. The civil and human rights activist contends that Islam is his personal business. Mr. X finds that religious differences can hinder solidarity. The speech 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. A desire for the Black community to discontinue supporting White politicians is expressed, and the speaker wants that support to be redirected to Black political leaders. Malcolm does not want the Black community to endorse Black political leaders who have been bought and paid for by White political leaders.
“The Ballot or the Bullet” has a strong concern with offering a practical understanding the political philosophy of black nationalism. The political philosophy of black nationalism is about developing a healthy Black community that relies on its Black membership for economic sufficiency and that refuses to be manipulated by Whites. The speaker asserts 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.
Malcolm supplies an understanding of the economic philosophy of black nationalism, which calls for Black people to control their own economic wealth. He 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. A re-education of Black people must take place to enable them to comprehend how to build and maintain wealth within their own community. He entreats Blacks to stop giving Whites their money and invest their money within the Black community. Because Blacks 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.
The speaker emphasizes that Blacks 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 Whites to cause them to embrace unconsciously. 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. Black people must develop businesses and support Black businesses. When Black people start businesses, they are able to employ Black people. Brother X does not want Black people to have to rely on their oppressors for jobs.
“The Ballot or the Bullet” questions the power of religion to aid Blacks in fighting their oppressors. Blacks 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 Mr. X, you cannot “sing” your way to freedom but you can “swing” your way to freedom.
The speech contends 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. Black nationalism is a self-help philosophy.
Malcolm is in opposition to “sit-ins,” “boycotting,” and marching around singing “We Shall Overcome”—his clever critiques of Kingian philosophy. He declares that White politicians don’t come into Black neighborhoods until election time. The speaker argues 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.
Blacks people need to vote 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. Malcolm X contends that 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 that 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. Mr. X implores Black people to take the fight beyond civil rights and expand it to human rights. Brother Malcolm expressed an intention 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.
“The Ballot or the Bullet” encourages Blacks to join churches and other organizations that promote Black uplift, and it warns them about Black churches and other organizations that advance white nationalism. Churches and organizations employing white nationalism can be recognized by their espousal of things counterproductive to Black uplift and solidarity.
Dr. Antonio Maurice Daniels
University of Wisconsin-Madison