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On the 41st Anniversary of the Assassination of Malcolm X, “The Ballot or the Bullet”

StoryFebruary 21, 2006
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We turn now to the words of Malcolm X, who was assassinated 41 years ago today in New York City as he spoke before a packed audience in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom. He was just 39 years old. This is an excerpt of a speech he gave in Detroit on April 12, 1964 — just a year before he was gunned down. It is known as “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

Malcolm X was a leader of the nationalist Black movement during the late 1950s and early 1960s. His father, Earl Little, was an outspoken Baptist minister and avid supporter of Black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and became targeted by the KKK. When Malcolm was just 6 years old, his father’s body was found beaten to a pulp.

As a child, Malcolm X excelled in school and graduated from junior high at the top of his class. But he lost interest in school when his favorite teacher told him his idea of becoming a lawyer was “no realistic goal for a nigger.” He dropped out and eventually wound up in Harlem, New York, where he became a drug dealer and a thief. At the age of 20, he was caught and sentenced to several years in prison for robbery. In prison, Malcolm renewed his studies and found the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam. By the time he got out of prison, Malcolm had converted to Islam and changed his name. He considered “Little” a slave name and chose the surname “X” to symbolize his lost African name.

Malcolm X was appointed a minister and national spokesman for the Nation of Islam. He established new mosques in Detroit, Michigan, Harlem and other cities. He was largely credited with increasing the Nation of Islam’s membership from 500 in 1952 to 30,000 in 1963. As Malcolm X’s fame began to supersede Elijah Muhammad’s, tensions grew within the Nation of Islam. FBI agents infiltrated the organization. Shortly after learning Elijah Muhammad was betraying his own teachings and having affairs with several women, Malcolm X split with the Nation of Islam. He founded the Organization of Afro-American Unity. Malcolm X was shot to death on February 21, 1965, in New York City. Many believe the FBI helped to foment the tensions between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now though the words of Malcolm X, who was assassinated 41 years ago today in Harlem as he spoke before a packed audience at the Audubon Ballroom. He was 39 years old. This is an excerpt of a speech he gave in Detroit, a year before he was gunned down. The speech is known as “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

MALCOLM X: Whether you are a Christian or a Muslim or a nationalist, we all have the same problem. They don’t hang you because you’re a Baptist; they hang you 'cause you're Black. They don’t attack me because I’m a Muslim; they attack me 'cause I'm Black. They attack all of us for the same reason.

All of us catch hell from the same enemy. We’re all in the same bag, in the same boat. We suffer political oppression, economic exploitation and social degradation, all of them from the same enemy. The government has failed us; you can’t deny that. Anytime you live in the 20th century and you walkin’ around here singing “We Shall Overcome,” the government has failed us. This is part of what’s wrong with you: You do too much singing. Today, it’s time to stop singing and start swinging. You can’t sing up on freedom, but you can swing up on some freedom. Cassius Clay can sing, but singing didn’t help him to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Swinging helped him become the heavyweight champion. So, this government has failed us. The government itself has failed us. And the white liberals who have been posing as our friends have failed us.

And once we see that all these other sources to which we’ve turned have failed, we stop turning to them and turn to ourselves. We need a self-help program, a do-it-yourself philosophy, a do-it-right-now philosophy, a it’s-already-too-late philosophy. This is what you and I need to get with. And the only time — the only way we’re going to solve our problem is with a self-help program. Before we can get a self-help program started, we have to have a self-help philosophy.

Black nationalism is a self-help philosophy. What’s so good about it, you can stay right in the church where you are and still take Black nationalism as your philosophy. You can stay in any kind of civic organization that you belong to and still take Black nationalism as your philosophy. You can be an atheist and still take Black nationalism as your philosophy. This is a philosophy that eliminates the necessity for division and argument, 'cause if you're Black, you should be thinking Black. And if you are Black and you’re not thinking Black at this late date, well, I’m sorry for you.

Once you change your philosophy, you change your thought pattern. Once you change your thought pattern, you change your attitude. Once you change your attitude, it changes your behavior pattern, and then you go on into some action. As long as you got a sit-down philosophy, you’ll have a sit-down thought pattern. And as long as you think that old sit-down thought, you’ll be in some kind of sit-down action. They’ll have you sitting in everywhere.

It’s not so good to refer to what you’re going to do as a sit-in. That right there castrates you. Right there it brings you down. What goes with it? What — think of the image of someone sitting. An old woman can sit. An old man can sit. A chump can sit. A coward can sit. Anything can sit. Well, you and I been sitting long enough, and it’s time today for us to start doing some standing and some fighting to back that up.

When we look at other parts of this Earth upon which we live, we find that Black, Brown, red and yellow people in Africa and Asia are getting their independence. They’re not getting it by singing “We Shall Overcome.” No, they’re getting it through nationalism. It is nationalism that brought about the independence of the people in Asia. Every nation in Asia gained its independence through the philosophy of nationalism. Every nation on the African continent that has gotten its independence brought it about through the philosophy of nationalism. And it will take Black nationalism to bring about the freedom of 22 million Afro-Americans here in this country, where we have suffered colonialism for the past 400 years.

America is just as much a colonial power as England ever was. America is just as much a colonial power as France ever was. In fact, America is more so a colonial power than they, because she’s a hypocritical colonial power behind it.

What is 20th — what do you call second-class citizenship? Why, that’s colonization. Second-class citizenship is nothing but 20th century slavery. How are you going to tell me you’re a second-class citizen? They don’t have second-class citizenship in any other government on this Earth. They just have slaves and people who are free. Well, this country is a hypocrite. They try and make you think they set you free by calling you a second-class citizen. No, you’re nothing but a 20th century slave.

Just as it took nationalism to remove colonialism from Asia and Africa, it’ll take Black nationalism today to remove colonialism from the backs and the minds of 22 million Afro-Americans here in this country.

Looks like it might be the year of the ballot or the bullet. Why does it look like it might be the year of the ballot or the bullet? Because Negroes have listened to the trickery and the lies and the false promises of the white man now for too long. And they’re fed up. They’ve become disenchanted. They’ve become disillusioned. They’ve become dissatisfied. And all of this has built up frustrations in the Black community that makes the Black community throughout America today more explosive than all of the atomic bombs the Russians can ever invent.

Whenever you got a racial powder keg sitting in your lap, you’re in more trouble than if you had an atomic powder keg sitting in your lap. When a racial powder keg goes off, it doesn’t care who it knocks out the way. Understand this: It’s dangerous, because what can the white man use now to fool us, after he put down that March on Washington? And you see all through that now. He tricked you, had you marching down to Washington. Yes, had you marching back and forth between the feet of a dead man named Lincoln and another dead man named George Washington, singing “We Shall Overcome.” He made a chump out of you. He made a fool out of you. He made you think you were going somewhere, and you end up going nowhere but between Lincoln and Washington.

So, today, our people are disillusioned. They’ve become disenchanted. They’ve become dissatisfied. And in their frustrations, they want action.

You’ll see this young Black man, this new generation asking for the ballot or the bullet. That old Uncle Tom action is outdated. The young generation don’t want to hear anything about the odds are against us. What do we care about odds?

AMY GOODMAN: Malcolm X, April 12th, 1964, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

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