On the activist and icon's birthday, we revisit the 1964 speech that centered Black political power and how it applies to today's tumultuous legislative climate.

Malaika Jabali
May, 19, 2017

Breaking away from the apolitical tenets of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X defiantly introduced a comprehensive vision for Black American liberation and unity in his 1964 “Ballot or the Bullet” speech.

The impetus for the passionate and fearless leader’s famous address was the 1964 presidential election, when Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was up for re-election.

In the speech, hosted by Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist Church, Malcolm X urged Black people around the country to understand the urgency of their social, political, and economic standing. If they weren’t going to participate in armed struggle and self-defense, Malcolm argued, they had to absolutely “know what part politics play in [their] lives.”

With a tumultuous few months of Donald Trump in office, the mainstreaming of white nationalism, and after a general election that saw traditionally Democratic strongholds in the Midwest shift their support away from the Democratic Party — thus securing Trump’s victory — the “Ballot or the Bullet” is remarkably still relevant in today’s social and political climate.

Here are three important takeaways:

Midwestern, working class voters that Democratic leaders are now attempting to appease should not just be White people

Overlooked in the headlines that Black people universally supported Hillary Clinton is the lower black voter turnout in the Midwest, where Clinton’s Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders fared better among Black voters. This, along with lower voter turnout in swing states generally, is one of the biggest factors that cost Hillary Clinton the election. 

This requires some historical context. Speaking before his Detroit audience of 2,000 people, Malcolm X knew Black Americans could swing elections, and he charged them to question their automatic support of the Democratic Party. With his trademark frankness, he advised them in “Ballot or the Bullet”:

[A]ny minority that has a block of votes that stick together is in a strategic position. Either way you go, that's who gets it. You're in a position to determine who'll go to the White House and who'll stay in the doghouse.

You're the one who has that power. You can keep Johnson in Washington D.C., or you can send him back to his Texas cotton patch. You're the one who sent Kennedy to Washington. You're the one who put the present Democratic administration in Washington, D.C. The whites were evenly divided. It was the fact that you threw 80 percent of your votes behind the Democrats that put the Democrats in the White House... And despite the fact that you are in a position to be the determining factor, what do you get out of it? The Democrats have been in Washington, D.C. only because of the Negro vote…You put them first and they put you last. Because you're a chump! A political chump.

Much of Malcolm X’s popularity was in Midwestern and northern cities, like Detroit and Cleveland, which hosted his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech just 5 days prior to his reprise in King Solomon. The mainstream civil rights struggle was generally a southern movement. But frustrations in inner cities and ghettoes, which were born out of different concerns than those in the south, led to many Black people abandoning the civil rights movement’s nonviolent calls for integration and questioning their unwavering Democratic support.

This is precisely the same dynamic that exists today. Except instead of reluctantly voting for the lesser of two evils, as has been Black Americans’ custom, Midwestern Black voters and voters across color lines simply opted out. Indeed, they decided in the last presidential election that Democrats would “stay in the doghouse.”

To criticize these Black voters without assessing their reasoning would be misguided. Many swing states, which are concentrated in the Midwest, have been decimated by economic and trade policies that centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton heralded. This cost a disproportionate number of Black families their homes, jobs, and livelihood as banks — empowered by bipartisan support for banking deregulation — preyed on them in the subprime mortgage crisis and manufacturers shuttered their doors for the global workforce.

By largely framing the working class, rust belt voters as White — a racist position that erases the entire history of Black people who participated in the Great Migration to America’s northern and Midwest cities to work in blue collar jobs they weren’t afforded in the south — Democrats will continue to alienate this Black voting bloc.

Black communities should revisit ideas of political independence

Malcolm X’s “Ballot or the Bullet” wasn’t simply a reactionary critique of the Democratic Party. It was a call for proactive political independence.

It is widely understood that the latest presidential election brought out more bigots and xenophobes. Certainly, racists have been frighteningly more emboldened to publicly spew vitriolic white nationalism. Yet, Donald Trump received virtually the same voting share as his Republican predecessors over the last 15 years. And, of course, Hillary Clinton got more popular votes, the highest margin of votes of any losing candidate in history.

The real difference in this election is that it simply didn’t inspire enough independent and traditionally Democratic voters in critical swing states to support the party.

So where do these voters go? The Republican Party and its historic aversion to Black people and, lately, casual acceptance of overt White supremacy, is not an option in any immediate future. The Democratic Party doesn’t seem to be changing its economic policies much, policies that were the driving force behind voter apathy in key battleground states.

In describing the lack of support for Blacks, even when the Democrats control Congress, Malcolm informed the Detroit audience:

In Washington, D.C., in the House of Representatives there are 257 who are Democrats. Only 177 are Republican. In the Senate there are 67 Democrats. Only 33 are Republicans. The party that you backed controls two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the Senate and still they can't keep their promise to you. 'Cause you're a chump.

Any time you throw your weight behind a political party that controls two-thirds of the government, and that party can't keep the promise that it made to you during election-time, and you're dumb enough to walk around continuing to identify yourself with that party, you're not only a chump but you're a traitor to your race.

Malcolm X’s answer to Black political oppression? Black Nationalism. Around the time of Malcolm’s speech, a day before he went on his life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, he urged that Black people use nationalism to “control the politics and the politicians in [their] own community.” He continues:

[U]ntil we become politically mature, we will always be misled, led astray, or deceived or maneuvered into supporting someone politically who doesn't have the good of our community at heart. So the political philosophy of black nationalism only means that we will have to carry on a program, a political program, of reeducation – to open our people's eyes, make us become more politically conscious, politically mature. And then, we will – whenever we are ready to cast our ballot, that ballot will be cast for a man of the community, who has the good of the community at heart.

In other communities, voters who identify as Independent has grown steadily. In fact, today, the number of voters who are Independent outnumber those who identify as either Republican or Democratic. It would behoove Black voters to consider efforts to fight for an independent political party and, in the interim, at least force both parties to earn their vote.

Organize

After his Mecca, Malcolm X, then referred to as el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, continued to vie for Black Nationalism, but he shed his separatist leanings. Further, he institutionalized his new philosophy with the formation of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), modeled after the Organization of African Unity, a coalition of 53 African nations seeking independence from their European colonizers. The OAAU sought to elevate the conversation of Black freedom from one of civil rights to a matter of human rights to bring international attention to Black people’s struggles in America. It sought to also reconnect African Americans with their African heritage, establish economic independence, and promote African American self-determination.”

Malcolm X and other ministers like Martin Luther King, Jr, Albert Cleage (one of the OAAU’s founding members), Jesse Jackson, and dozens of others, recognized the value of forming institutions that fight for Black freedom. With religious spaces providing a built-in organization of Black people, ministers readily merged their spiritual message with a political one.

Much of this mass organizing has been lost in the post-Civil Rights movement, yet it remains a critical component of our struggle. With worse incarceration rates for Black people than in the 60s, poverty rates that remain high, and income and wealth gaps that have only grown in the last 50 years, Black people who desire a transformation of our conditions in America cannot realistically expect any improvement without being involved in organizations and institutions fighting for these changes.

The relatively modest gains Blacks made in the 60s involved extensive organizing for political power and mass protests. The same is required of us today.