“The Ballot or the Bullet”

Malcolm X was one of the most dynamic, dramatic and influential figures of the civil rights era. He was an apostle of black nationalism, self-respect, and uncompromising resistance to white oppression. Malcolm X was a polarizing figure who both energized and divided African Americans, while frightening and alienating many whites. He was an unrelenting truth-teller who declared that the mainstream civil rights movement was naive in hoping to secure freedom through integration and nonviolence. The blazing heat of Malcolm X’s rhetoric sometimes overshadowed the complexity of his message, especially for those who found him threatening in the first place. Malcolm X was assassinated at the age 39, but his political and cultural influence grew far greater in the years after his death than when he was alive.

On April 3, 1964, one month after splitting with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X gave his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech at Cory United Methodist Church in Cleveland (Nine days after he gave the same speech in Detroit, but the Detroit version is regarded by some scholars as definitive). It was the fullest declaration of his black nationalist philosophy. Mainstream black ministers in Detroit tried to block Malcolm X from using the church, saying “separatists ideas can do nothing but set back the colored man’s cause.” But the church hall had already been rented out for the event.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” became one of Malcolm X’s most recognizable phrases, and the speech was one of his greatest orations. Two thousand people – including some of his opponents — turned out to hear him speak in Detroit… President Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection in 1964, and Malcolm X declared it “the year of the ballot or the bullet.” He outlined a new, global sensibility in the fight for racial justice: “We intend to expand [the freedom struggle] from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights.”