February 21st marks the 49th anniversary of the assassination of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz, Omawale, “our Black Shining Prince,” Malcolm X. This year is also fifty years since Malcolm delivered The Ballot or the Bullet speech. Brother Malcolm made numerous speeches, and it is hard to imagine one that was not inspirational, informational and powerful. The two speeches that stand out for me are Message to the Grassroots and The Ballot or the Bullet. Frankly, nothing matches Message to the Grassroots for its conviction, searing logic, clarity, passion and power. It’s an awesome oration!
But, The Ballot or the Bullet is a milestone speech because it comes at a critical juncture in Malcolm’s political evolution and development. After his painful departure from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm is striving to assure his devoted followers that Black Nationalism is still the philosophy/ideology which guides his work. He is also setting the stage for a more active engagement in the “civil rights movement” by offering a critique of the Capitalist political economy and its dominant political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. The Ballot or the Bullet signals a transition in Malcolm’s evolution, one which witnesses him seeking to build Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity as independent structures to advance his vision of Black liberation. Tragically, Malcolm was cut-down before his vision could reach fruition. Nonetheless, it may be useful to examine the tenets articulated in this speech to assess their relevance fifty years later.
1964 was a crucial presidential election year. Expectations in Black America were very high in the wake of the historic March on Washington in August of 1963. Black leaders and their allies were pressing President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to pass substantive legislation to ensure the rights of African Americans as first class citizens in this nation. Breaking with his prior posture of non-engagement in electoral politics, a skeptical Malcolm X indicated that 1964 offered America the opportunity to prove that it was serious about guaranteeing the rights of its formerly enslaved sons and daughters. He suggested that this might be America’s last chance; therefore he declared, “This just might be the year of the ballot or the bullet.”
This was an implicit warning that Blacks were not obligated to “suffer peacefully” in the face of the ongoing, unmitigated onslaught of a white supremacist system and its policies. Because he observed the virulent intransigence of southern Democrats who labeled themselves “Dixiecrats” and the reluctance of many Republicans to overtly embrace civil rights legislation, Malcolm had little faith that either Party could be trusted to promote and defend the rights of Black people over the long haul. Hence, one could infer that he preferred the stance of Fannie Lou Hamer and the freedom fighters from Mississippi who formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party – an independent political organization.
Malcolm was also firm about the importance of Black Nationalism as the ideological framework for the Black Freedom Struggle. In The Ballot or the Bullet, he sought to “make it plain” by articulating the practical meaning and application of what some viewed as a controversial philosophy. In essence, Malcolm believed that Black people should control the neighborhoods/communities where we are the majority. Black people should control the politics, politicians, economics and social life (health, education, welfare) in our communities. In its most simple and practical form Black Nationalism means that Black people should control Black neighborhoods/communities to the fullest degree possible in order to maximize our freedom and self-determination.
Fifty year later, the question is how does Black progress measure up in relation to the tenets laid out in The Ballot or the Bullet? In 1964 few would have imagined that by 2008 the United States would have its first African American President. This is stunning progress by any reasonable measure and yet, as IBW has repeatedly proclaimed, there is a State of Emergency in America’s “dark ghettos,” neighborhoods/communities where the masses of poor and working people are “catching more hell” than ever before as Malcolm might put it. Black people are still over reliant on a Democratic Party which can afford to take us for granted because the Tea Party dominated Republican alternative is unthinkable as an option. Worse still, with the dismantling of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition as a mass-based, progressive force, Black America does not have a viable independent political organization to promote and defend Black interests based on an agenda. The Congressional Black Caucus does a reasonable job of promoting Black interests, but it is locked into the Democratic Party and has limited capacity to utilize mass protests and other non-electoral tactics to advance a Black agenda.
At the local level Malcolm would be distressed by the lack of real control of the politics and politicians in the Black community. We have more Black elected officials than ever before, but far too many of them are out of touch with the vision of the Black political leader whose primary mission is to expose the contradictions and limitations of the “system” while mobilizing/organizing to deliver the maximum goods and services to the people. In the 60’s theoreticians and Black activists advocated a politics of social transformation — engaging the system to change the system. All across the country we find large numbers of Black people who are alienated or have given up on the electoral political process because they see little relationship between their support for elected officials and substantive change in the quality of life in Black neighborhoods/communities, particularly in urban inner-city areas. This is reflected in pathetically low voter turn-out in elections. Black folks are fed-up with too many self-serving, self-aggrandizing, vision-less elected officials.
Fortunately, Malcolm would be pleased that there are a few Black political leaders who adhere to his commitment to Black empowerment. Former Detroit Council Members Kwame Kenyatta and JoAnn Watson, former Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron (Kenyatta, Watson and Barron left office voluntarily or were term-limited), Newark Councilman and candidate for Mayor Ras Baraka and Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Mississippi are on the short list of Black elected officials who have consistently used their positions to empower Black and marginalized people. Indeed, prior to becoming Mayor, Chokwe Lumumba was elected to the City Council from a district where he organized a People’s Assembly to “control the politics” of the community.
The “Black community” is far more dispersed today than it was in 1964 because of the flight of the Black middle class and gentrification – which has become the “Negro removal” program of the 21st Century. Vanishing “chocolate cities” are the order of the day as Black people seem powerless to “control” our neighborhoods/communities. And, in the “dark ghettos” that remain, the “Black economy” provides economic opportunities and jobs for a mere fraction of people in need. As Rev. Dennis Dillon, Editor/Publisher of The Economic State of New York Report details, Black New Yorkers do not control the economics of the neighborhoods in which they live. The pattern in New York is typical for Black America. At the macro-level, despite the persistent exhortations of leaders like George Fraser, Dr. Claud Anderson, Jim Clingman and Rev. Dillon people of African descent are pathetically negligent in “controlling” the more than one trillion dollars which flows through our hands every year!
The bottom line is that fifty years after The Ballot or the Bullet, remembering Malcolm is not a nostalgic exercise. The lessons from this milestone speech are still strikingly relevant today. A healthy dose of Black Nationalism as Malcolm prescribed it is not only still in order, it’s imperative!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.