The Making of Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet”

By Zaheer Ali

Election Day 2020 might be behind us, but with a lame duck president refusing to accept the outcome, and two Senate runoff elections scheduled in Georgia for January 2021, our national preoccupation with electoral politics is far from over. Political scientists, pollsters, and pundits have already begun to unpack the implications of the results; and at least one thing is clear: Black voters were critical to President-Elect Joe Biden’s and Vice-President-Elect Kamala Harris’s victories in key swing states

How votes cast in 2020 will translate into meaningful change for Black communities is left to be seen. One historical voice that is likely to echo in conversations about the power of the Black vote and the prospects for freedom through electoral politics is Malcolm X, who inspired a 2016 Sapelo Square community roundtable on this very question. In 1964, his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech so presciently described the terrain that is still very much part of today’s political landscape:

Vinyl LP cover depicting high-contrast black-and-white image of Malcolm X set against dark background with chin resting on hand, titled with "Malcolm X The Ballot or The Bullet" in white block letters.
Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet” [Vinyl LP Cover], Paul Winley Records.

“Twenty-two million Black victims of Americanism are waking up and they are gaining a new political consciousness, becoming politically mature. And as they become – develop this political maturity, they’re able to see the recent trends in these political elections. They see that the whites are so evenly divided that every time they vote, the race is so close they have to go back and count the votes all over again. Which means that any block, any minority that has a block of votes that stick together is in a strategic position. Either way you go, that’s who gets it. You’re in a position to determine who’ll go to the White House and who’ll stay in the doghouse.”

First delivered in Cleveland on April 3, 1964, and then in Detroit on April 12, “The Ballot or the Bullet” is one of Malcolm X’s most iconic speeches and is considered seventh among the top 100 American political speeches of the twentieth century. Audio recordings of the Detroit speech, and transcripts of both speeches have long circulated widely, and they attest to Malcolm’s skills as an orator and rhetorician. Yet, it is rare that listeners and readers of Malcolm X get to go beyond his delivery to get a better understanding of his speech craft as a thinker and writer.

Last month, I joined Julie Golia of the New York Public Library’s Center for Research in the Humanities to examine Malcolm’s handwritten notes for “The Ballot or the Bullet,” as part of the Center’s ongoing Doc Chat series that pairs a NYPL curator and scholar to discuss digitized items from the Library’s collections. Together, we explored the context around the speech, and identified clues that can be gleaned from Malcolm’s notes about his intellectual evolution and rhetorical intentions. Finally, we talked about the ways the document can be used to teach more comprehensively about Malcolm X’s life and legacy in particular, and the Black freedom movement in general.

[I]t is rare that listeners and readers of Malcolm X get to go beyond his delivery to get a better understanding of his speech craft as a thinker and writer.

Featured Image: “”The Ballot or the Bullet” (Notes)” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed November 17, 2020.

Image of Zaheer Ali leaning on a wall with arms crossed.

Zaheer Ali, Sapelo Square History Editor, is an oral historian, educator, and most importantly Sapelo OG. His oral history interviews have informed a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Malcolm X, spawned a viral video on Muslim bakers, and inspired a critically acclaimed art installation on Muslims in Brooklyn. He understands the recovery and sharing of our histories as more than just a journalistic mission or scholarly enterprise–it’s a sacred rite and community obligation.

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