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Malcolm X: The Ballot or The Bullet

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Dashka Gabriel

on 8 March 2014

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Transcript of Malcolm X: The Ballot or The Bullet

The Ballot or the Bullet
The Right Target

Burke's Dramatist Pentad:
1. Act: What happened? What is the action?
2. Scene: Where is the act happening? What is the background situation?
3. Agent: Who is involved in the action? What are their roles?
4. Agency: How do the agents act? By what means do they act?
Purpose: Why do the agents act? What do they want?

- Public speech delivered on April 3, 1964, at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio
- Advised African-Americans to judiciously exercise their right to vote
- Cautioned that if the government continued to prevent African-Americans from attaining full equality, it might be necessary for them to take up arms.
-It was ranked 7th in the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century by 137 leading scholars of American public address.
The Ballot or the Bullet: Malcolm X
Malcolm X: A background on speaker
Born May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, this fiery black nationalist leader was a charismatic spokesman for the Nation of Islam until breaking with the group shortly before his 1965 assassination.

- The body of Malcolm's father, Earl Little, likely murdered by white supremacists, was discovered laid out on the municipal streetcar tracks.
- Malcolm X dropped out of school at the age of 15.
- Malcolm X became acquainted with the city's criminal underground, soon turning to selling drugs
- Malcolm X's life came to a screeching halt in 1946 when he was arrested on charges of larceny and sentenced to ten years in jail.
- Malcolm X converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison, and upon his release in 1952 he abandoned his surname "Little," which he considered a relic of slavery, in favor of the surname "X" – a tribute to the unknown name of his African ancestors.
- Worked with the leader of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad, to expand the movement's following among black Americans nationwide.
- Early 1960s, Malcolm X had emerged as a leading voice of a radicalized wing of the civil rights movement, presenting an alternative to Dr. Martin Luther King's vision of a racially integrated society achieved by peaceful means.
- Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam in 1964.
Source: http://www.biography.com/people/malcolm-x-9396195?page=3
Source: http://rhetorica.net/burke.htm
Source: http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/malcolm_x_ballot.html
Let's break it down!
The X- Factors
- The act is the deliverance of the speech,
"The Ballot or The Bullet"
-April 3, 1964
- The Ballot or the Bullet speech was meant to encourage voting in order to affect change rather than being forced to use violence.
General: 1964 Civil Rights Movement
- Struggle of international human rights
Specific: April 3, 1964,
- Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio
- Motivational and Persuasive Speech
- Malcolm X
- Civil Rights Activist
- African- American
- Emphasis on the
'Black victim' of Americanism
-Emphasis of expansion of civil rights struggle to a level of a human rights struggle
- Achieving the means of black equality or supremacy by whatever means necessary
- Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland, Ohio
- Preaching the "gospel" of black nationalism
- To encourage to African- Americans to exercise their voting rights

Scene: 1964 Civil Rights Movement
“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! “


1964 was a crucial period in civil rights history; this speech directly correlates to the social and political changes and struggles of the period. This absolute relevance to the audience and time period portrays this piece as more poignant and nostalgic.
Agent: Malcolm X
“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.”

Malcolm X's 'identifiers' help to establish an ethos that reaches beyond religious stereotypes. Often associated with his Muslim faith and beliefs, X clarifies that his efforts are for all oppressed African- Americans, establishing a larger and more devoted audience.
Agency: Emphasis on Black Victimization in America, The Human Rights Struggle, Black Equality

“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.”

“Not only did we give of our free labor, we gave of 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. Civil rights, for those of us whose philosophy is black nationalism, means: "Give it to us now. Don't wait for next year. Give it to us yesterday, and that's not fast enough."
"I might stop right here to point out one thing. Whenever you're going after something that belongs to you, anyone who's depriving you of the right to have it is a criminal. Understand that. 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.”

“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, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. 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. And as long as it's civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam.”
"... as long as you and I have been over here, we aren't Americans yet. 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. They don't have to pass civil-rights legislation to make a Polack an American.”

The provocative language and stark reality presented by the agent in all these X-Factors evokes a yearning for justice, a call to action and an almost spiritual awakening. The Ballot or the Bullet emphasized greatly the “Gospel” of Black nationalism. This can be entirely recognized in X's rousing vernacular which parallels to sermons that speak on the deliverance to God's people. Furthermore, by recognizing the similar struggles of all human rights, X's speech itself gains a more universal barrier and influence on all minorities who were being kept down by the “jurisdiction” of Uncle Sam.
Purpose: The Ballot or the Bullet speech was meant to encourage voting in order to affect change rather than being forced to use violence.

"By ballot I only mean freedom. Don't you know -- I disagree with Lomax on this issue -- that the ballot is more important than the dollar? Can I prove it? Yes. Look in the UN. There are poor nations in the UN; yet those poor nations can get together with their voting power and keep the rich nations from making a move. They have one nation -- one vote, everyone has an equal vote. And when those brothers from Asia, and Africa and the darker parts of this earth get together, their voting power is sufficient to hold Sam in check. Or Russia in check. Or some other section of the earth in check. So, the ballot is most important."

“The political philosophy of black nationalism means that the black man should control the politics and the politicians in his own community; no more. 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.”

Malcolm X is often criticized for his civil-rights efforts as they were often associated with violent means. In this speech however, after a restructuring of his own beliefs, X emphasizes the power of numbers in the electoral process as the most dramatic threat to the “white man”. His parallel to the ballot as a bullet (mentioned 10+ times!) effectively convinces his audience to reconsider what to aim for and how to take down their target.
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