Speeches Over Time: Malcolm X and The Ballot or the Bullet

“This is why I say it’s the ballot or the bullet. It’s liberty or it’s death. It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.”

Malcolm x

This quote is from civil rights activist Malcolm X’s famous The Ballot or the Bullet speech. His quote is reminiscent of Patrick Henry’s “give my liberty or give me death,” and creates a similar call to action.

Malcolm X was known for his violent tactics. His views directly clashed with Martin Luther King Jr’s, causing a bit of a feud. Therefore, many sections of his speech are indirect jabs at King’s work and beliefs. These remarks in addition to the extreme nature of the text made the speech very powerful (and frightening to some) at the time.

Initial Audience Reception

Malcolm X’s views contradicted Martin Luther King Jr.’s views, and this speech continued to divide African Americans. His text was polarizing and forced African Americans to choose sides. Black ministers tried to ban Malcolm X from delivering this speech because they were afraid it caused African Americans to fight amongst each other rather than unite against their oppressors.

Over two thousand people came to see Malcolm X’s Ballot or the Bullet speech as he delivered it in Detroit, Michigan. It was an election year, bringing civil rights tensions to a head. With this in mind, Malcolm X’s speech contained great and positive messages regarding suffrage in this work that was lost by many in his threats of violence. The Ballot or the Bullet terrified white Americans, making civil rights less palatable for them.

Contemporary Audience Reception

If this speech were to be given in 2020, it would have different and similar reactions. In this case, Malcolm X and the other Civil Rights Era activists of 1964 were legally granted the suffrage that they were fighting for at the time. Therefore, this text may not be well received by many Americans due to being outdated. On the other hand, other Americans may enjoy Malcolm X’s speech and argue that the work is still relevant due to systematic oppression and voter suppression.

While Malcolm X’s delivery of the Ballot or the Bullet speech in 1964 was polarizing to African Americans, I think it may be accepted on a more unified front within this community today. In his speech, Malcolm X says that “we intend to expand it from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights.” This is similar to the contemporary Black Lives Matter Movement. The Black Lives Matter website states that “we work vigorously for freedom and justice for Black people and, by extension, all people.”

The Black Lives Matter movement and Malcolm X have similar values, and they also have similar backlash from white Americans. This backlash even led to white Americans coining their own phrase, “All Lives Matter.” Due to this parallel in racial tension, I believe that white Americans would have a similar reaction to Malcolm X’s Ballot or the Bullet speech in contemporary America as they did back in 1964.

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