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The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Theme: SegregationTheme: MigrationsTheme: ProtestTheme: CommunityTheme: Overcome?
Theme: Protest

Malcolm X, 6 August 1963
- Malcolm X, "The Ballot or the Bullet," address, Cory Methodist Church, Cleveland, Ohio, 3 April 1964
  - Text
  - Audio

Although Robert Williams criticized the nonviolent strategy of the civil rights movement (see #6, Arming), he did not reject its integrationist goals. Others did, however, most notably members of the Nation of Islam, who, according to historian Colin Palmer, "espoused an aggressive philosophy of race pride and separation from white America."1 In the early 1960s the chief spokesman for this point of view was Malcolm X (1925-1965). In "The Ballot or the Bullet," an address he delivered before activists and religious leaders in Detroit, Malcolm X defines and makes a case for black nationalism. He urges African Americans to abandon efforts to change the minds and hearts of white Americans and instead direct their energies toward unifying the black community and freeing it from outside control. Later in the sixties this position was known simply as black power.

Malcolm X made this speech just one month after he left the Nation of Islam over a disagreement with its leader Elijah Muhammad and a month before embarking upon a transforming pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. To contextualize the speech further, keep in mind that just eight months earlier, in August of 1963, thousands of people, white and black, had participated in the March on Washington, where they heard Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech. In November of 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. As Malcolm X spoke, Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Three months later Lyndon Johnson signed it into law, setting the stage for the migration of the "Dixiecrats," against whom Malcolm X inveighed in his speech, to the Republican Party. At the time of the bill's signing, the voter registration drives of the Freedom Summer were underway in Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered, and representatives of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party were preparing to travel to Atlantic City, hoping to unseat the state's regular delegation at the party's nominating convention. In February 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated. The following month Alabama state troopers attacked peaceful marchers in Selma. The ensuing outrage enabled the Democratic congress to overcome Southern opposition and pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (12 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. Why would a group of Christian ministers invite Malcolm X to speak?
  2. Why would he choose to deliver these remarks to such an audience?
  3. Within the first nine paragraphs of his speech, how does Malcolm X establish his relationship with the audience? How would you characterize that relationship?
  4. What is Malcolm X's rhetorical strategy in "The Ballot or the Bullet"?
  5. What are the goals of his speech?
  6. How does Malcolm X place his argument in the American political tradition?
  7. Compare Malcolm X's discussion of generational divisions with Pauli Murray's in Song in a Weary Throat (#1: Asking).
  8. Compare and contrast Malcolm X's image of white America with that implicit in the SCLC brochure, the Albany (Georgia) handbill, and the SNCC statement of purpose (#2: Reasoning).
  9. Compare Malcolm X's views on black self-defense with those espoused by Robert Williams in Negroes with Guns (#6: Arming).
  10. Compare and contrast Malcolm X's views on segregation and separation with those of James Farmer in Freedom—When? (see Theme I: SEGREGATION).
  11. Compare and contrast Malcolm X's attitude toward American identity with that expressed by W. E. B. Du Bois in "Criteria of Negro Art" (see #10: Writing) and that expressed by Alain Locke in "The New Negro" (see Theme II: MIGRATIONS).
  12. Compare Malcolm X's concept of black nationalism with Stokely Carmichael's concept of black power as he expresses it in "Toward Black Liberation" (see Theme I: SEGREGATION).
  13. How does Malcolm X place the struggles of African Americans into a global context?
  14. What political action does Malcolm X call for in this speech?
  15. Was Malcolm X's assessment of the marching and singing civil rights movement correct?

Framing Questions
  •  What forms did African American protest take?
  •  How did protest strategies and goals evolve over time?
  •  In what ways was African American identity shaped in opposition to the larger American society?

Malcolm X: 12 pages
Supplemental Sites
Malcolm X, overview in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Encyclopedia, King Papers Project, Stanford University

The Malcolm X Project, Columbia University

Malcolm X, address in Harlem, 1964, "What Does Mississippi Have to Do With Harlem?" in Eyes on the Prize (PBS)

Malcolm X, address in Detroit, 14 February 1965, after the bombing of his New York City residence, from

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Image: Malcolm X displays a newspaper headline at a Black Muslim rally, 6 August 1963. Associated Press © AP Images. Reproduced by permission.

1 Colin Palmer, Passageways: An Interpretative History of Black America, Vol. II: 1865-1965 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 186.

1. Asking   2. Reasoning   3. Singing   4. Marching
  5. Boycotting   6. Arming   7. Voting   8. Separating
  9. Connecting   10. Writing   11. Poetry   12. Theater   13. Images

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume III, 1917-1968
Segregation | Migrations | Protest | Community | Overcome?

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