‘In 1964, it’s the ballot or the bullet’


Editor’s note: Here are excerpts of a speech El Hajj Malik el Shabazz (Malcolm X) gave on April 3, 1964 in Cleveland, Ohio.

Brothers and sisters, friends and enemies: the question tonight is, “The Negro Revolt, and Where Do We Go From Here?” or What Next?” It points toward either the ballot or the bullet.

I’m still a Muslim; my religion is still Islam. 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 that will make you catch hell whether you’re a Baptist, or a Methodist, or a Muslim, or a nationalist. Whether we are Christians or Muslims or nationalists or agnostics or atheists, we must first learn to forget our differences.

Same boat

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.

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.

Nineteen sixty-four threatens to be the most explosive year America has ever witnessed, when all of the White politicians will be back in the so-called Negro community giving 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.

Fight over here

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 there, you can be brave right here. And if you fight here, you will at least know what you’re fighting for.

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 doesn’t make you an American. 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.

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… 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.

Wasted vote

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.

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 can’t 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?

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 (who) already had jobs. That’s camouflage, that’s trickery, that’s treachery, window-dressing.

You put the Democrats first and the Democrats put you last. What alibis do they use, since they control Congress and the Senate? They blame the Dixiecrats. What is a Dixiecrat? A (Southern) Democrat.

South and North

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. Half of the people in the South can’t even vote.

In the North, they do it a different way. They have a system that’s known as gerrymandering…It means when Negroes become too heavily concentrated in a certain area, and begin to gain too much political power, the White man comes along and changes the district lines.

You may say, “Why do you keep saying White man?” Because it’s the White man who does it. I haven’t ever seen any Negro changing any lines. They don’t let him get near the line And usually, it’s the White man who grins at you the most, and pats you on the back, and is supposed to be your friend.

You and I in America are faced not with a segregationist conspiracy, we’re faced with a government conspiracy. 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.

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. This government has failed the Negro. And all these White liberals have definitely failed the Negro.

I’m not anti-Democrat, I’m not anti-Republican, I’m not anti-anything. I’m just questioning their sincerity, and some of the strategy that they’ve been using on our people by promising them promises that they don’t intend to keep.

Where do we go from here?

We need some friends, some new allies. To those of us whose philosophy is Black nationalism, the only way you can get involved in the civil-rights struggle is give it a new interpretation. And these handkerchief-heads who have been dilly-dallying and pussyfooting and compromising – we don’t intend to let them pussyfoot and dillydally and compromise any longer.

How can you thank a man for giving you what’s already yours? How then can you thank him for giving you only part of what’s already yours? You haven’t even made progress, if what’s being given to you, you should have had already.

We’re justified in seeking civil rights, if it means equality of opportunity, because all we’re doing there is trying to collect for our investment. Our mothers and fathers invested sweat and blood. Three hundred and ten years we worked in this country without a dime in return. You let the White man walk around here talking about how rich this country is, but you never stop to think how it got rich so quick.

It got rich because you made it rich. Your and my mother and father, who didn’t work an eight-hour shift, but worked from “can’t see” in the morning until “can’t see” at night, and worked for nothing, making the White man rich, making Uncle Sam rich. This is our investment, our contribution: our blood.

Every time he had a call to arms, we were the first ones in uniform. We died on every battlefield the White man had. We have made a greater sacrifice than anybody who’s standing up in America today. We have made a greater contribution and have collected less.

Assert your rights

Whenever you’re going after something that belongs to you, anyone who’s depriving you of the right to have it is a criminal. Whenever you are going after something that is yours, you are within your legal rights to lay claim to it. And anyone who puts forth any effort to deprive you of that which is yours, is breaking the law, is a criminal.

Any time you demonstrate against segregation and a man has the audacity to put a police dog on you, kill that dog. If you don’t take this kind of stand, your little children will grow up and look at you and think, “Shame!” If you don’t take an uncompromising stand, I don’t mean go out and get violent; but at the same time you should never be nonviolent unless you run into some nonviolence.

I’m nonviolent with those who are nonviolent with me. But when you drop that violence on me, then you’ve made me go insane, and I’m not responsible for what I do. And that’s the way every Negro should get.

Any time you know you’re within the law, within your legal rights, within your moral rights, in accord with justice, then die for what you believe in. But don’t die alone. Let your dying be reciprocal. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level – to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.

International help

Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States.

But the United Nations has what’s known as the Charter of Human Rights; it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia, and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN. This is part of the conspiracy.

When you expand the civil-rights struggle to the level of human rights, you can then take the case of the Black man in this country before the nations in the UN General Assembly. You can take Uncle Sam before a World Court.

Civil rights means you’re asking Uncle Sam to treat you right. Human rights are something you were born with. Human rights are your God-given rights. Human rights are the rights that are recognized by all nations of this earth.

Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with the blood of the Black man in this country. He’s the earth’s number-one hypocrite. He has the audacity… imagine him posing as the leader of the free world.  And you over here singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Let the world know how bloody his hands are. Let the world know the hypocrisy that’s practiced over here. Let it be the ballot or the bullet.

Control your own

The political philosophy of Black nationalism means that the Black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community. The Black man in the Black community has to be re-educated into the science of politics so he will know what politics is supposed to bring him in return.

Don’t be throwing out any ballots. A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.

The political philosophy of Black nationalism is being taught in the Christian church in the NAACP, in CORE meetings, in SNCC Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee meetings, in Muslim meetings. It’s being taught where nothing but atheists and agnostics come together. It’s being taught everywhere.

Simple philosophy

The economic philosophy of Black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy of our community. Why should the economy of our community be in the hands of the White man?

The philosophy of Black nationalism involves a re-education program in the Black community in regards to economics. Our people have to be made to see that any time you take your dollar out of your community and spend it in a community where you don’t live, the community where you live will get poorer and poorer, and the community where you spend your money will get richer and richer. Then you wonder why where you live is always a ghetto or a slum area.

So the economic philosophy of Black nationalism means in every church, civic organization, fraternal order, it’s time now for our people to become conscious of the importance of controlling the economy of our community.

If we own the stores, if we operate the businesses, if we try and establish some industry in our own community, then we’re developing to the position where we are creating employment for our own kind.

The social philosophy of Black nationalism only means that we have to get together and remove the evils, the vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils that are destroying the moral fiber of our community. We ourselves have to lift the level of our community, the standard of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful so that we will be satisfied in our own social circles and won’t be running around here trying to knock our way into a social circle where we’re not wanted.

Black nationalism is not designed to make the Black man reevaluate the White man…(it’s) to make the Black man re-evaluate himself. Don’t change the White man’s mind…and that whole thing about appealing to the moral conscience of America – America’s conscience is bankrupt.

U.S has no conscience

They don’t know what morals are. They don’t try and eliminate an evil because it’s evil, or because it’s illegal, or because it’s immoral; they eliminate it only when it threatens their existence. So you’re wasting your time appealing to the moral conscience of a bankrupt man like Uncle Sam. If he had a conscience, he’d straighten this thing out with no more pressure being put upon him.

We have to change our own mind. You can’t change his mind about us. We’ve got to change our own minds about each other. We have to see each other with new eyes. We have to see each other as brothers and sisters. We have to come together with warmth so we can develop unity and harmony that’s necessary to get this problem solved ourselves.

How can we do this?

I have watched how Billy Graham comes into a city, spreading what he calls the gospel of Christ, which is only White nationalism. Billy Graham is a White nationalist; I’m a Black nationalist.

How is it possible for him to come into a city and get all the cooperation of the church leaders? Billy Graham comes in preaching the gospel of Christ. He stirs everybody up, but he never tries to start a church. If he came in trying to start a church, all the churches would be against him.

Our gospel is Black nationalism. We’re not trying to threaten the existence of any organization, but we’re spreading the gospel of Black nationalism. Anywhere there’s a church that is also preaching and practicing the gospel of Black nationalism, join that church. If the NAACP is preaching and practicing the gospel of Black nationalism, join the NAACP. If CORE is spreading and practicing the gospel of Black nationalism, join CORE.

I don’t believe in any kind of integration; I’m not even worried about it, because I know you’re not going to get it because you’re afraid to die; you’ve got to be ready to die if you try and force yourself on the White man, because he’ll get just as violent as those crackers in Mississippi, right here in Cleveland.

But we will still work with you on the school boycotts because we’re against a segregated school system. A segregated school system produces children who, when they graduate, graduate with crippled minds.

In control

But this does not mean that a school is segregated because it’s all Black. A segregated school means a school that is controlled by people who have no real interest in it whatsoever. When you’re under someone else’s control, you’re segregated. They’ll always give you the lowest or the worst that there is to offer, but it doesn’t mean you’re segregated just because you have your own. You’ve got to control your own.

You know the best way to get rid of segregation? The White man is more afraid of separation than he is of integration. Segregation means that he puts you away from him, but not far enough for you to be out of his jurisdiction; separation means you’re gone. And the White man will integrate faster than he’ll let you separate.

Article Two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. If the White man doesn’t want the Black man buying rifles and shotguns, then let the government do its job.

Don’t go out shooting people, but any time – brothers and sisters, and especially the men in this audience; some of you wearing Congressional Medals of Honor, with shoulders this wide, chests this big, muscles that big – any time you and I sit around and read where they bomb a church and murder in cold blood, not some grownups, but four little girls while they were praying to the same God the White man taught them to pray to, and you and I see the government go down and can’t find who did it.

No, if you never see me another time in your life, if I die in the morning, I’ll die saying one thing: the ballot or the bullet.


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