Sample Rhetorical Analysis: The Ballot or the Bullet
The two great civil rights leaders of the 1960’s, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, held diametrically opposed political philosophies. King was a pacifist, in the tradition of Gandhi before him; Malcolm X was a radical, an advocate of violence. Both, however, shared a common goal—real freedom for African Americans. Malcolm X’s speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” was a direct response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech of a month before.
Malcolm X, once associated with the Black Panthers, and a member of the Black Muslim movement, wrote “The Ballot or the Bullet” not only as a response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifism, but because he was frustrated with white dilly-dallying in reaching a decision on black rights in America. Political debate had reached an impasse, and Malcolm wanted to make it clear that if the Congress couldn’t come to a decision, black Americans would take matters into their own hands. He did not share Martin’s pacifist inclinations, and he promised a violent seizure of civil rights.
An examination of Malcolm X’s speech will reveal that it is one of the most powerful speeches ever written. It is, in every respect, the equal of Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is eloquent, it is memorable, and it is poetic. Its tone, unlike Martin’s conciliatory speech, is militant. He appeals to the emotions of his young audience, rousing them to anger; and in the same breath, strikes fear into the hearts of his white listeners.
Malcolm uses several methods to rouse his black audience to anger. One of his main methods, echoing Martin’s own, is repetition. Whereas Martin repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” Malcolm repeats the words “I am not . . .” The audience echoes these words to itself. The repetition, like the refrain of a hymn, becomes the catch phrase of every black man, woman and child in the room as they identify with Malcolm’s claims. In case they have missed it, he re-emphasizes by using the word “you,” repeating it over and over again. He let’s every individual in the room, every “you” within the sound of his voice, and within the range of his speech as reported in the media, identify with his claim that “I am not an American,” but a victim of “Americanism.” No one escapes the idea—not even his white listeners—that they are hated and despised right along with him.
Malcolm frightens his white listeners by pointing out that if the political system (the ballot) won’t give blacks their due, the civil rebellion (the bullet) will. He rouses white fears by defiant, racial language. He stands up to whites, using white equivalents of the word “nigger” as a verbal expression of rebellion. He repeats words like “Hunkies,” and “Polacks,” and “blue-eyed thing” to let whites know that the African American community means business. It is clear that African Americans are no longer afraid or submissive, and that it is time for a change. Malcolm understands that these words will raise levels of hatred within the hearts of his immediate audience, and that they will be reported in the press and carried into the hearts and homes of every white American, so that fear will permeate and intimidate the white community.
By giving a militant speech which parallels Martin’s pacific one, and by employing repetition in precisely the same way as Martin, Malcolm shows his skill as an orator. Whereas “I have a dream” is the refrain of a hymn, “I am not” is the refrain of a battle song. Every time he repeats the staccato “I am not,” Malcolm hammers home the point, slamming the idea of an uprising into the minds of his listeners, and pumping a bullet with precision into the heart of every white listener. You hear it in the poetry of the repetition. When he concludes with the words, “I see no American dream; I see only an American nightmare,” everyone in the room recognizes the allusion to Martin’s speech of a month before. Black Americans recognize that the time for pacifism is past—that the only solution is revolution. Malcolm appeals on two levels at once. What he says arouses the emotions, but does so precisely because what he says is absolutely logical: You cannot call yourself a diner (an American) when your plate is empty (denied basic civil rights). Whites rightly viewed his words as a declaration of war, and they knew that the black community had had enough. Whereas Martin was a leader whose approach was polite, Malcolm posed a very tangible threat. A choice had to be made.
Malcolm X was no less an orator than Martin Luther King Jr., but his vision was undeniably darker. He felt that African Americans needed to understand that they were all in the same boat, and that there was no difference between the “I” and the “You” he spoke of. The only way out was to stand up as one, and to claim their freedom by violent means. Malcolm was a freedom fighter in the real sense of the term. He appealed to his black audience through emotion and cold, clear logic. He allowed them to see that they were downtrodden, and that they needed to stand up for their rights, even if that meant violence, because freedom—real freedom—is worth dying for. His were “fighting words.” To call whites “Polacks” and “blue-eyed things” ensured that his words would be reported in the press and carried into the hearts and minds of whites everywhere. He knew that fear would be struck into their hearts, and that they would reach the conclusion that oppression is not worth dying for. Whether or not Malcolm really wanted civil war is questionable. But he did understand the power of words, and he knew how to make himself heard, and to strike fear and anger into the hearts and minds of his readers everywhere. He made it exceptionally clear that if Martin’s pacifism didn’t work, then there was an alternative. His message was effective, because it had the desired effect: He roused black anger, on the one hand; and he frightened whites on the other. For the powers that be, there was at last a very clear choice: the ballot, or the bullet.
Excerpt: The Ballot or the Bullet, by Malcolm X
I'm not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I'm not a student of much of anything. I'm not a Democrat, I'm not a Republican, and I don't even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there'd be no problem. Those Hunkies that just got off the boat, they're already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren't Americans yet.
Well, I am one who doesn't believe in deluding myself. I'm not going to sit at your table and watch you eat, with nothing on my plate, and call myself a diner. Sitting at the table doesn't make you a diner, unless you eat some of what's on that plate. Being here in America doesn't make you an American. Being born here in America doesn't make you an American. Why, if birth made you American, you wouldn't need any legislation, you wouldn't need any amendments to the Constitution, you wouldn't be faced with civil-rights filibustering in Washington, D.C., right now. They don't have to pass civil-rights legislation to make a Polack an American.
No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver -- no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.