The Ballot or the Bullet

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Malcolm X Speaks: 'It's The Ballot Or The Bullet'

The following are excerpts from "The Ballot or the Bullet," a speech Malcolm X gave on April 3, 1964, at the Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Qhio. The meeting, sponsored by the Cleveland chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, took the form of a symposium entitled "The Negro Revolt - What Comes Next?"

If we don’t do something real soon, I think you'll have to agree that we're going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It's one or the other in 1964. It isnt that time is running out - time has run out! 1964 threatens to be the most explosive year America has ever witnessed. The most explosive year. Why? It's also a political year. It's the year when all of the white politicians will be back in the so-called Negro community jiving you and me for some votes. The year when all of the white political crooks will be right back in your and my community with their false promises, building up our hopes for a letdown, with their trickery and their treachery, with their false promises which they don't intend to keep. As they nourish these dissatisfactions it can only lead to one thing, an explosion....

Don't let anybody tell you anything about the odds are against you. If they draft you, they send you to Korea and make you face 800 million Chinese. If you can be brave over mere, you can be brave right here. These odds aren't as great as those odds. And if you fight here, you will at least know what you're fighting for.

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....

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....

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....

When white people are evenly divided, and black people have a bloc of votes of their own, it is left up to them to determine who's going to sit in the White House and who's going to be in the dog house. It was the black man's vote that put the present administration [of Democratic president Lyndon Johnson] in Washington, D.C. Your vote, your dumb vote, your ignorant vote, your wasted vote put in an administration in Washington, D.C., that has seen fit to pass every kind of legislation imaginable, saving you until last, then filibustering on top of that. And your and my leaders have the audacity to run around clapping their hands and talk about how much progress we're making. And what a good president we have.

If he wasnt good in Texas, he sure can't be good in Washington, D.C. Because Texas is a lynch state. It is in the same breath as Mississippi, no different; only they lynch you in Texas with a Texas accent and lynch you in Mississippi with a Mississippi accent. And these Negro leaders have the audacity to go and have some coffee in the White House with a Texan, a Southern cracker - that's all he is - and then come out and tell you and me that he's going to be belter for us because, since he's from the South, he knows how to deal with the Southerners. What kind of logic is that?....

In this present administration they have in the House of Representatives 257 Democrats to only 177 Republicans. They control two-thirds of the House vote. Why cant they pass something that will help you and me? In the Senate, there are 67 senators who are of the Democratic Party. Only 33 of them are Republicans. Why, the Democrats have got the government sewed up, and you're the one who sewed it up for them. And what have they given you for it? Four years in office, and just now getting around to some civil-rights legislation. Just now, after everything else is gone, out of the way, they're going to sit down now and play with you all summer long - the same old giant con game that they call filibuster. All those are in cahoots together... They're playing that old con game. One of them makes believe he's for you, and he's got it fixed where the other one is so tight against you, he never has to keep his promise.

So it's time in 1964 to wake up. And when you see them coming up with that kind of conspiracy, let them know your eyes are open. And let them know you got something else that's wide open too. It's got to be the ballot or the bullet. The ballot or the bullet. If you're afraid to use an expression like that, you should get on out of the country, you should get back in the cotton patch, you should get back in the alley. They get all the Negro vote, and after they get it, the Negro gets nothing in return. All they did when they got to Washington was give a few big Negroes big jobs. Those big Negroes didn't need big jobs, they already had jobs. That's camouflage, that's trickery, that's treachery, window-dressing. I'm not trying to knock out the Democrats for the Republicans, we'll get to them in a minute. But it is true - you put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last....

They have got a con game going on, a political con game, and you and I are in the middle. It's time for you and me to wake up and start looking at it like it is, and toying to understand it like it is; and then we can deal with it like it is. The Dixiecrats in Washington, D.C., control the key committees that run the government. The only reason the Dixiecrats control these committees is because they have seniority. The only reason they have seniority is because they come from states where Negroes can't vote. This is not even a government that's based on democracy. It is not a government that is made up of representatives of the people. Half of the people in the South can't even vote....

This is pitiful. But it's not pitiful for us any longer; it's actually pitiful for the white man, because soon now, as the Negro awakens a little more and sees the vise that he's in, sees the bag that he's in, sees the real game that he's in, then the Negro's going to develop a new tactic..,. When you keep the Democrats in power you keep the Dixiecrats in power..,.

The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don’t need to go to the employer alone, it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.

  1. How does Malcolm X's rhetoric compare to Kings?

  2. How do the two compare with reference to their goals, strategies, and attitudes?

Title: Stokely Carmichael, "What We Want," excerpted from New York Review of

Books, September 22, 1966.

Background: In the mid-1960s new civil rights organizations were formed that were more aggressive and radical in their goals and methods. Nonviolent protest as a strategy for social change was criticized by these more militant organizations that were dissatisfied with the slow pace of progress. One such leader was Stokely Carmichael, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who had worked diligently for African American rights in the South. Although he was willing to work with moderate black civil rights leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was strongly opposed to working with whites for the cause of civil rights. Carmichael popularized the slogan, "Black Power," and announced in 1966 that "the time for white involvement in the fight for equality has ended.... If we are to proceed toward true liberation, we must set ourselves off from white people." Carmichael's concept of "Black Power" advocated that African Americans should have their own businesses, culture, schools, political parties, etc. Carmichael asserted that "integration is a subterfuge for the maintenance of white supremacy." He was selected to be the honorary prime minister of the Black Panther Party in 1967; he resigned from that position two years later, condemning its dogmatism and alliance with white groups. He later moved to Guinea in West Africa.

Text; "One of the tragedies of the struggle against racism is that up to now there has been no national organization which could speak to the growing militancy of young black people in the urban ghetto. There has been only a civil rights movement, whose tone of voice was adapted to an audience of liberal whites. It served as a sort of buffer zone between them and angry young blacks. None of its so-called leaders could go into a rioting community and be listened to. ..."

"For too many years, black Americans marched and had their heads broken and got shot.. .. After years of this, we are at almost the same point—because we demonstrated from a position of weakness. We cannot be expected any longer to march and have our heads broken in order to say to whites: come on, you're nice guys. For you are not nice guys. We have found you out."

"An organization which claims to speak for the needs of a community—as SNCC does—must work to provide that community with a position of strength from which to make its voice heard. This is the significance of black power beyond the slogan. ..."

"We should begin with the basic fact that black Americans have two problems: they are poor and they are black.... Any program to end racism must address itself to that double reality."

"Almost from its beginning, SNCC sought to address itself to both conditions with a program aimed at winning political power for impoverished Southern blacks. We had to begin with politics because black Americans are a propertyless people in a country where property is valued above all. We had to work for power, because this country does not function by morality, love, and nonviolence, but by power. Thus, we are determined to win political power, with the idea of moving on from there into activity that would have economic effects. With power, the masses could make or participate in making


decisions which govern their destinies, and thus create basic change in their day-to-day lives...."

"Ultimately, the economic foundations of this country must be shaken if black people are to control their lives. . .. For a century, this nation has been like an octopus of exploitation, its tentacles stretching from Mississippi and Harlem to South America, the Middle East, southern Africa, and Vietnam; the form of exploitation varies from area to area but the essential result has been the same—a powerful few have been maintained and enriched at the expense of the poor and voiceless colored masses. This pattern must be broken. As its grip loosens here and there around the world, the hopes of black Americans become more realistic. For racism to die, a totally different America must be born...."

"Black people do not want to 'take over' this country. They don't want to 'get whitey'; they just want to get him off their backs.... When we urge that black money go into black pockets, we mean the communal pocket. We want to see money go back into the community and used to benefit it. We want to see the cooperative spirit applied in business and banking. ... The society we seek to build among black people, then, is not a capitalist one. It is a society in which the spirit of community and humanistic love prevail. .. . The love we seek to encourage is within the black community, the only American community where men call each other "brother" when they meet.. .."

"As for white America, perhaps it can stop crying out against 'black supremacy,' 'black nationalism,' and 'racism in reverse,' and begin facing reality. The reality is that this nation, from top to bottom, is racist; that racism is not primarily a problem of 'human relations' but of an exploitation maintained—either actively or through silence—by society as a whole. .. . Can whites, particularly liberal whites, condemn themselves? Can they stop blaming us, and blame their own system? ... We have found that they usually cannot condemn themselves, and so we have done it.... We won't fight to save the present society .. . .We are just working in the way we see fit, and on the goals we define, not for civil rights but for all our human rights."

Questions for Reflection and Discussion:

  1. How does this speech demonstrate the ways that Carmichael was influenced by the philosophy of Malcolm X? What are the similarities between the ideas expressed by each man?

  2. In his writing how does Carmichael define and explain the concept and goals of
    "Black Power."

  3. Compare the ideas and methods of Stokely Carmichael and Dr. Martin Luther
    King, Jr. to achieve equality, freedom, and justice for African Americans.

  4. Explain and evaluate Carmichael's statement: "For racism to die, a totally
    different America must be born." Do you think that this statement is a realistic or
    idealistic assessment of American society during the 1960s? Explain your


The Black Panther Party Ten-Point Program

Huey Newton

In the mid-1960s SNCC organizers and local black leaders in Lowndes County, Alabama, ran a black slate of candidates using the black panther as their symbol. That symbol was also adopted in Oakland, California, by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale when they formed the Black Panther Party in 1966. By 1969 it had chapters in most large cities in the United States.

The following selection, usually credited to Newton, is reprinted from "The Black Panther Ten-Point Program" (n.d.).

1. We want freedom. We want power to determine the destiny of our Black Com­


We believe that black people will not be free until we are able to determine our destiny.

2. We want full employment for our people.

We believe that the federal government is responsible and obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income. We believe that if the white American businessmen will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessmen and placed in the community so that the people of the community can organize and employ all of its people and give a high standard of living.

3. We want an end to the robbery by the white man of our Black Community.

We believe that this racist government has robbed us and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules was promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of black people. We will accept the payment in currency which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the geno­cide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.

4. We want decent housing, fit for shelter of human beings.

We believe that if the white landlords will not give decent housing to our black community, then the housing and land should be made into cooperatives so that our community, with government aid, can build and make decent housing for its people.

5. We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent
American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role
in the present-day society.

We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self. If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.

6. We want all black men to be exempt from military service.

We believe that Black people should not be forced to fight in the military service to defend a racist government that does not protect us. We will not fight and kill other people of color in the world who, like black people, are being victimized by the white racist government of America. We will protect ourselves from the force and violence of the racist police and the racist military, by whatever means necessary.

  1. We want an immediate end to police brutality and murder of black people.
    We believe we can end police brutality in our black community by organizing
    black self-defense groups that are dedicated to defending our black community
    from racist police oppression and brutality. The Second Amendment to the Consti­
    tution of the United States gives a right to bear arms. We therefore believe that all
    black people should arm themselves for self-defense.

  2. We want freedom for all black men held in federal, state, county and city pris­
    ons and jails.

We believe that all black people should be released from the many jails and pris­ons because they have not received a fair and impartial trial.

9. We want all black people when brought to trial to be tried in court by a jury of

their peer group or people from their black communities, as defined by the Consti­
tution of the United States.

We believe that the courts should follow the United States Constitution so that black people will receive fair trials. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives a man a right to be tried by his peer group. A peer is a person from a similar economic, social, religious, geographical, environmental, historical and racial background. To do this the court will be forced to select a jury from the black community from which the black defendant came. We have been, and are being tried by all-white juries that have no understanding of the "average reasoning man" of the black community.

10. We want land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace. And as our major political objective, a United Nations-supervised plebiscite to be held throughout the black colony in which only black colonial subjects will be allowed to participate, for the purpose of determining the will of black people as to their national destiny.

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dis­solve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume, among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind required that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, govern­ments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that, whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its pow­ers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happi­ness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and, accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But, when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their fu­ture security.

1. Did the goals of the Black Panther Party differ from those of Martin Luther King and his followers? Explain- with details.

2. How did the strategies of the Black Panther Party differ from those of Martin Luther King and his followers?

3. What is the significance of point #10?

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