ballotor bulletSTUDY GUIDE

People who fail to study Black history are likely not to understand the trans-generational dialogue that represents the radical Black tradition.  This is certainly true with Malcolm X.  An outline of how the Black radical tradition leads to Malcolm X can be found in our study guide published in 1990.

The Ballot or Bullet speech by Malcolm X was given in 1964.  Frederick Douglass, over 100 years earlier in 1859, wrote an article titled “The Ballot and the Bullet.” (Volume 2, pages 457-458, The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass (4 volumes) edited by Philip S. Foner.  In this work Douglass says the following:

“If speech alone could have abolished slavery, the work would have been done long ago.  What we want is an anti-slavery government, in harmony with our anti-slavery speech, one which will give effect to our words, and translate them into acts.  For this, the ballot is needed, and if this will not be heard and heeded, then the bullet.  We have had cant enough, and are sick of it.  When anti-slavery laws are wanted, anti-slavery men should vote for them; and when a slave is to be snatched from the hand of a kidnapper, physical force is needed, and he who gives it proves himself a more useful anti-slavery man than he who refuses to give it, and contents himself by talking of a “sword of the spirit.”

This ballot or bullet theme in Black radicalism is a fundamental tenet of American politics because this was part of the main ideological rationale for the American anti-colonial war of liberation from England.  This was clearly stated at the beginning of the 1776 Declaration of Independence - 228 years ago.  See and read the full text if you want to understand the tradition on which Malcolm X stands, a radical American tradition:

This is a study guide for the “Ballot or the Bullet” speech by Malcolm X.  This speech was part of a Spring 1964 offensive by Malcolm X.  It is important to be clear on the historical context in which he was giving political leadership.  There were forces that came first and must have impacted Malcolm X’s thinking:

1.            Robert Williams and his Monroe North Carolina armed self defense strategy as summer up in his book Negroes with Guns (1962)

2.            Deacons for Defense and Justice, an armed group formed in Louisiana in 1964

3.            Revolutionary Action Movement, a group that Malcolm joined, and who went on to influence the development of the Black Panther Party 

US President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and Johnson consolidated his leadership of the Kennedy administration by staying the course and supporting major civil rights legislation.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law July 2, 1964.  During the summer of 1964 SNCC led the civil rights organizations into a coalition called COFO formed in 1962 for a major offensive in Mississippi.  This was the Mississippi Summer Project.  Hundreds of activists poured into the state and confronted the heart of racist state power.  The House passed the bill in February 1965, but a Senate filibuster held it up.   The Senate filibuster ended on June 19th.   Three movement activists were martyred by assassination in Philadelphia Mississippi on June 21st (Goodman, Chaney, and Swerner).  Out of the Mississippi project came a political party, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party MFDP.  From the local precinct level to a delegation going to the national convention the MFDP fought the racist party organization that excluded Black people.  The main civil rights leaders tried to get the MFDP to accept being seated but without voice or vote, and they rejected this as a sell out.  SNCC had rejected it.

In the mean time bullets kept flying:


Feb 21



Aug 1

REBELLION in Watts, Los Angeles, California



Black Power slogan emerges in militant march in Mississippi



Black Panther Party organized in Oakland California



REBELLION in Detroit, Michigan



REBELLION in Newark, New Jersey






ASSASSINATION of Bobby Hutton, Black Panther



League of Revolutionary Black Workers organized in Detroit


Dec 4

ASSASSINATION of Fred Hampton, Black Panther

In 1965-66 the struggle was developing.  The defeat of the Watts rebellion led to thye ideological advance of the Black Power slogan, and the new revolutionary organization called the Black Panther Party, followed two years later by the workers throwing up a new revolutionary force on the factory floor called the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.  The US armed forces put down major urban rebellions, and assassination of Black radical leaders continued.

The 1964 presidential campaign brought forward the ultra right via Barry Goldwater.  By 1966 Black Power emerged as a key ideological slogan and electoral victories led to the first major Black Mayors of Cleveland and Gary in Indiana.  By 1968 things get even more extreme when George Wallace the leading segregationist politician as Gov of Alabama runs for president and wins the Indiana primary!  Richard Nixon wins in 1968 and 1972, but was run out of office in disgrace in 1974. A struggle for power was taking place. 

Malcolm X laid the basis for understanding these events

a                     the Senate filibuster, and racist state power

b                    the murders, and unity between the Klan and the government

c                     the emergence of Black Power, in both the electoral form and more militant forms as well.

These analyses point to a theory of the US racist capitalist state based on finding a strategy to fight against it:

a                     Power of southern fascism

b                    Black United Front

c                     Armed self defense

d                    Black liberation as self determination