The Ballot or the Bullet

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Documents on African American Suffrage, Group C, 1
Malcolm X, April 4, 1964. "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 hand 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 1964.  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-nonviolent 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. 

Documents on African American Suffrage, Group C, 2

Robert Moses, April 24, 1964. "Speech at Stanford." (
For our part this summer we’re gonna go to the National Democratic Convention in Atlantic City and challenge the regular Mississippi delegation.  We’re gonna ask the National Democratic Party that they unseat that delegation; that they seat our people in its place and that they make a real structural change or the beginning of a structural change within their party.  Our basis for doing that are three or four fold—we’re carrying on within the state what we call a freedom registration.  Some of the people who’ve come down this summer who are interested in politics will be working on that.  We’re setting up our own registrars in every one of the 82 counties, to have deputy registrars.  We have our own forms.  We’re challenging the whole basis of the registration in Mississippi.  We don’t have any form or questions that will make people interpret some section of the Constitution.  And we’re making it simply as simple as we possibly can.  We want to register upwards of 300,000 or 400,000 Negroes around the state of Mississippi.  To dispel at least for once and for all the argument that the reason Negroes don’t register is because they’re apathetic.  Because there are these 400,00 people to be registered.  But for one thing people don’t even know that they’re there.  And if they are and they do know they say well if so many people are not registering part of the reason and probably a large part of the reason must be their apathy.
Documents on African American Suffrage, Group C, 3
President Lyndon B. Johnson, “The American Promise,” 1965 (

Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security, but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation.

The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such an issue. And should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation.

For with a country as with a person, "What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?"

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans -- not as Democrats or Republicans -- we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.

This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal" -- "government by consent of the governed" -- "give me liberty or give me death." Well, those are not just clever words, or those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries, and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty, risking their lives.

Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions; it cannot be found in his power, or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.

To apply any other test -- to deny a man his hopes because of his color or race, his religion or the place of his birth -- is not only to do injustice, it is to deny America and to dishonor the dead who gave their lives for American freedom.

Our fathers believed that if this noble view of the rights of man was to flourish, it must be rooted in democracy. The most basic right of all was the right to choose your own leaders. The history of this country, in large measure, is the history of the expansion of that right to all of our people.

Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex and most difficult. But about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than the duty we have to ensure that right.

Yet the harsh fact is that in many places in this country men and women are kept from voting simply because they are Negroes.

Every device of which human ingenuity is capable has been used to deny this right. The Negro citizen may go to register only to be told that the day is wrong, or the hour is late, or the official in charge is absent. And if he persists, and if he manages to present himself to the registrar, he may be disqualified because he did not spell out his middle name or because he abbreviated a word on the application.

And if he manages to fill out an application he is given a test. The registrar is the sole judge of whether he passes this test. He may be asked to recite the entire Constitution, or explain the most complex provisions of State law. And even a college degree cannot be used to prove that he can read and write.

For the fact is that the only way to pass these barriers is to show a white skin.

Experience has clearly shown that the existing process of law cannot overcome systematic and ingenious discrimination. No law that we now have on the books -- and I have helped to put three of them there -- can ensure the right to vote when local officials are determined to deny it.

In such a case our duty must be clear to all of us. The Constitution says that no person shall be kept from voting because of his race or his color. We have all sworn an oath before God to support and to defend that Constitution. We must now act in obedience to that oath.

Wednesday I will send to Congress a law designed to eliminate illegal barriers to the right to vote. . . .

There is no moral issue. It is wrong -- deadly wrong -- to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country. . . . .

We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in.

And we ought not and we cannot and we must not wait another 8 months before we get a bill. We have already waited a hundred years and more, and the time for waiting is gone.

Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

Documents on African American Suffrage, Group C, 4

The following table ( compares black voter registration rates with white voter registration rates in seven Southern States in 1965 and 1988:1/

Voter Registration Rates (1965 vs. 1988)


March 1965

November 1988



































North Carolina







South Carolina














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