In honor of today’s birthday of MLK, Jr., who delivered his famous I Have a Dream speech on August 28, 1963 in Washington D. C., I thought I would revisit one of my favorite Malcolm X speeches, The Ballot or the Bullet, which was delivered on April 3, 1964 at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, less than eight months after MLK, Jr.’s famous “March On Washington” speech, and less than five months after the decade’s archetypical assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Malcolm X believed that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been bought and paid for by the white people, specifically by the white liberals, who then used Dr. King to harness in the black vote toward their social reform policies.
In the following speech, Malcolm X refers back, unkindly, to King’s march on Washington, when the I Have a Dream speech was delivered and when We Shall Overcome was sung by white musicians, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
Malcolm X, for all his un-whitewashed candor, was ultimately shot in the chest by a black man with a sawed-off shotgun while addressing the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan, on February 21, 1965, not even a year after he had delivered his The Ballot or the Bullet speech. His autopsy reported 21 bullet wounds, ten of which were from the initial shotgun blast, and the remaining wounds from two handguns fired by two other Black men.
The men were identified as Thomas Hagan, who was later released from prison in 2010; and Thomas Johnson and Norman Butler, both of whom were paroled in the 1980’s.
I would highly recommend viewing Spike Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington portraying with full justice the black leader.
I had just turned ten years old the month before Malcolm X’s killing, and I remember hearing of his death, though a long, drawn-out deal was not made of it on the news. MLK, Jr.’s assassination from a white sniper’s bullet in 1968, however, was clearly front-page material for years to come, as were the assassinations of JFK in 1963 and his brother RFK in 1968.
The times were not only “a-changin’,” but they were times when the all-too-fragile balance between heated rhetoric and heated gun barrels tipped madly in the wrong direction. In a troublesome way, those times now seem to be mirrored within our own.
For example, many of the very same leaders from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Weather Underground, along with many of their ideological mentors, people who were responsible at that time for choosing “the bullet” instead of “the ballot” through their bombings of military and capitalist buildings, are now, in fact, either members of the Obama Administration or serving as advisors to him and his administration.
Those of us in our Liberty Groups, in a sense, are now faced with the same choices that the SDS, the Weather Underground, Malcolm X and MLK, Jr. faced–essentially, the ballot or the bullet. Malcolm X and MLK, Jr. both chose the ballot, and both died by the bullet for that choice.
The Marxist-influenced, student radicals of the Sixties chose the bullet and now, ironically, are prospering from that choice as representatives of the same constitutional government that gives us all the right to the ballot.
As members of our Liberty Groups, we’re not fighting a racial battle, as Dr. King, Malcolm X and so many others were in the sixties, but we are fighting a similar battle, one of constitutional civil rights.
In the case of MLK, Jr., the power of the white liberals was with him solidly. Not so in Malcolm X’s case. Power was being fought over by the Democrats who wanted it with the government and the Republicans who wanted it with the military and the capitalist machine.
There were no Liberty Groups, as we have now, to represent power with the people—except, in a sense, from Malcolm X. If you listen closely to his voice, he didn’t want power with the whites on the left or on the right. He didn’t want blacks like MLK, Jr. supporting power in the hands of the white left. He didn’t want power only in the hands of his Nation of Islam black people. He wanted power out of partisan hands regardless of left, right, color or religion.
Then, there were the liberal, Marxist-influenced, student and faculty fueled radicals tossing stones at the Goliath of a capitalist war machine, who ultimately learned the grassroots method of “becoming their enemy” by working their way up through the government’s ranks until, more than forty long years later, finally reaching the summit—the Obama Administration.
Who stands for Malcolm X today, in the sense of his crying out for taking absolute power out of the hands of the party elitists and the military and capitalist machines, and for placing power into the hands of all voting Americans? Who stands for the ballot? It’s certainly not Romney, Gingrich or Santorum. It’s not FOX News Channel. And, it’s definitely not President Obama.
“Take a moral stand—right now, not later,” Malcolm X shouted, or we risk responsibility “for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of.” –SB
The following excerpted speech is from: [Hogins, James Burl and Robert E. Yarber, ed. Reading Writing And Rhetoric. 1967. Malcolm X. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Science Research Associates, Inc., 1972.]
. . . No, if you never see me another time in your life, if I die in the morning, I’ll die saying one thing: the ballot or the bullet, the ballot or the bullet.
If a Negro in 1964 has to sit around and wait for some cracker senator to filibuster when it comes to the rights of black people, why, you and I should hang our heads in shame. You talk about a march on Washington in 1963, you haven’t seen anything. There’s some more going down in ’64. And this time they’re not going like they went last year. They’re not going singing “We Shall Overcome.” They’re not going with white friends. They’re not going with placards already painted for them. They’re not going with round-trip tickets. They’re going with one-way tickets.
And if they don’t want that non-violent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt. The black nationalists aren’t going to wait. 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 declare himself. Let him go in there right now and declare himself. Let him go in there and denounce the Southern branch of his party. 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, brothers and sisters, he will be responsible for letting a condition develop in this country which will create a climate that will bring seeds up out of the ground with vegetation on the end of them looking like something these people never dreamed of. In 1964, it’s the ballot or the bullet. Thank you.
[Please see my more recent post: Malcolm X’s Homemade Education for more on his background.