Tag Archives: The Ballot or the Bullet

Some Pointed Words from Malcolm X (Trying to Better understand issues of Racial Tension)

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death, assassinated, of Martin Luther King, Jr.  This morning, I completed my handout for my synopsis of  Malcolm X:  A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable, which I will present at noon today for the Urban Engagement Book Club, hosted by CitySquare.  Malcolm X was killed, assassinated, on February 21, 1965.

These two black leaders were quite different in a lot of ways.  But, as a white teenager in the 1960s, I am sad to report that I paid little attention to their words or deeds then.  I have been playing catch-up-up for a very long time.

If you want to better understand the racial tension that has never gone fully away, and, in fact, is sadly rearing its head again after the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, you might want to carve out some time to read the Marable biography of Malcolm X.  It is a thorough look at this man’s life.  But it might also be worth your time to read his two most famous speeches:  Message to Grassroots, October 10, 1963 and The Ballot or the Bullet, April 3, 1964.

Malcolm X

Malcolm X spoke so very clearly, so very directly, about his feelings and experiences as a black man.  Here are just two excerpts.

From Message to Grassroots:

What you and I need to do is learn to forget our differences. When we come together, we don’t come together as Baptists or Methodists. You don’t catch hell ’cause you’re a Baptist, and you don’t catch hell ’cause you’re a Methodist. You don’t catch hell ’cause you’re a Methodist or Baptist. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Democrat or a Republican. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Mason or an Elk. And you sure don’t catch hell ’cause you’re an American; ’cause if you was an American, you wouldn’t catch no hell. You catch hell ’cause you’re a black man. You catch hell, all of us catch hell, for the same reason.

From The Ballot or the Bullet:

Although I’m still a Muslim, I’m not here tonight to discuss my religion. I’m not here to try and change your religion. I’m not here to argue or discuss anything that we differ about, because it’s time for us to submerge our differences and realize that it is best for us to first see that we have the same problem, a common problem, a problem that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist. Whether you’re educated or illiterate, whether you live on the boulevard or in the alley, you’re going to catch hell just like I am. We’re all in the same boat and we all are going to catch the same hell from the same man. He just happens to be a white man. All of us have suffered here, in this country, political oppression at the hands of the white man, economic exploitation at the hands of the white man, and social degradation at the hands of the white man.

Now in speaking like this, it doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression. And if the white man doesn’t want us to be anti-him, let him stop oppressing and exploiting and degrading us.

We all still have so very much learning, and so much work, to do.

“We Must Rise To The Majestic Heights Of Meeting Physical Force With Soul Force” – Dr. Martin Luther King Beckons Us Toward Non-Violence

(note;  I write on this blog about business topics, business books – and a few other subjects.  I also teach Speech.  This article refers to a section of what some call the greatest speech delivered in the United States in the 20th Century).

Today is Martin Luther King Day.  I have read his words, watched him on video, read biographies.  He was a remarkable man – a remarkable leader.

In this year, on this day, maybe it would be good to remember his clarion call for non-violence.

He had reason to demand change.  He was the Pastor of the church where Rosa Parks was a member.  Her “crime” was technically a crime, but a crime based on an unjust law.  Dr. King would later write:

I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that an unjust law is no law at all. (Letter from a Birmingham Jail – read the full text of the letter here).

And he knew that to gain freedom, to gain equality and justice, he had to “demand it.”

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor, it must be demanded by the oppressed. (Again, from the Letter from Birmingham Jail).

But, how to demand it?  This is where Dr. King’s greatness is seen.  He believed in demanding it/taking it without violence.  His friends had been beaten.  Some had been killed.  (many, over the decades).  Freedom Riders had had their heads bashed in.  (Here’s one example:  just read the Wikipedia article about Congressman John Lewis, regarding his early activist years.  For a gripping photograph of John Lewis, with bandages on the back of his head after being beaten by the KKK, in 1961, go to this Slate.com Magnum Photos slide show — look at picture #6.  The photo is from a press conference, and the future Congressman Lewis is seated next to Dr. King).

But Dr. King was certain that to respond to violence with violence was not the answer.  Here are words from his greatest speech, I Have a Dream, delivered at The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 (read the full speech here):

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force.

Today, in relative comfort, four decades removed from the turmoil of that era, we forget that the approach of non-violence was not guaranteed to “win” the day.  There were other voices, recommending other paths — like Malcolm X, in a speech delivered some eight months after Dr. King’s, on April 3, 1964:  The Ballot or the Bullet (read the full speech here):

The question tonight, as I understand it, is “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go From Here?” or What Next?” In my little humble way of understanding it, it points toward either the ballot or the bullet.

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 isn’t that time is running out – time has run out!

There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death. The only difference about this kind of death — it’ll be reciprocal.

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.

The contrast is so stark.  And the judgement of history is correct.  Dr. King’s speech was the greatest delivered in the era – not the one by Malcom X.  Why?  Because, ultimately, the path of non-violence is the better path.

This is the message of Dr. King.  But his was not a soft message.  He had studied Gandhi.  He believed that the path of non-violence was the path that had the greatest possibility of success.  Dr. King believed that the path of violence was both wrong, but also a losing path.

On Martin Luther King Day, let’s remember the turmoil of his era, the path he beckoned us toward, and the truth that the struggle for justice – justice for all – is ongoing, for us and our children and our grandchildren, and generations to come.  And let’s remember his message:  that freedom must be demanded, but never with acts of violence.