Analysis of "The Ballot or the Bullet" by Malcolm X
The public speech "The Ballot Or the Bullet" was delivered by the human rights activist Malcolm X on April 3, 1964, at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland. The speech addresses the issue of discrimination against black people in America and vocalizes an appeal for black people to use their voices, stand up for their rights, and vote. Malcolm X starts his speech by addressing the entirety of the African American community and saying that they should put aside their differences to support each other in regards to the problem they all have in common: discrimination by white people. He clarifies that speaking up about the oppression of black people by white people does not mean that black people are against white people, but against the actions that hurt black people. He emphasizes that it is time for the black community to act against the oppression they have to endure.
Malcolm X brings up his problem with identifying as an American as an argument for black people to stand up for themselves. He mentions that black people could not be American as long as they face problems within the American system and notes the contrast between the black people in America and the people who immigrated there from Europe. He furthermore says that being born in America is not equivalent to being an American because if it were equivalent, black people would not need the civil-rights movement to be treated as citizens. He states that he does not see the American dream, but rather the American nightmare, in light of the fact that he views the country through the eyes of a victim of the American system. After vocalizing the issue, he demands that black people should use their voices in 1964 and use their possibility to vote, as the other option is violence.
Malcolm then gives voice to the new approach of the young black people to gain rights in America, which is a violent strategy, the only other option he deems as possible to make a change other than voting. In regard to violence, he claims that there should be no violence as long as the black community is not treated violently, but that the violence of white people against black people should also be reciprocated with such a force. He ends his speech by calling Uncle Sam, the personification of America and its government, a hypocrite and saying he has black people's blood on his hands. He also once again demands that African Americans should vote.
The given speech has many rhetorical and linguistically interesting aspects. The title of the speech itself is rhetorically noticeable. "The ballot or the bullet" is an alliteration that he uses to emphasize the two options he sees regarding the civil-rights movement of African Americans, which are voting or violence. He begins his speech by addressing the black people who live in America. He does that by using the pronouns "we" or "us" (I. 1), words that can be seen throughout the entire speech. This creates a sense of alliance and union and gives the listener a corporate feeling. He also uses a metaphor in the beginning of the speech, as he describes the issue the black community faces as sitting in the same boat (1.3), creating once again a feeling of union and visualization for the people listening. He wants black people in America to unite on one common ground and to forget about their differences.
When mentioning the problems created by white people that black people suffer from, Malcolm X uses a tricolon by repeating the same set of words three times: "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" (1. 5 f.). He does that to emphasize how many problems white people created for black people. There is another use of a tricolon in his speech when he brings up the identification of black people with the American nationality and lists examples of European immigrants who were seen as American upon their arrival in America (I. 14 f.). This once again is used for emphasizing. He wants to show how unequal black people in America are treated opposed to Caucasians.
He uses another metaphor to illustrate the inequality of black and white people in America by comparing rights to food on a plate and saying that he cannot call himself a diner while he has nothing on his plate and can only watch other people eat. He says that only sitting at the table does not make one a diner, as there is nothing to dine (II. 18-20). The picture he painted with this metaphor is pretty clear: America is the table, the people with food on their plates who can dine are white people, and the person with no food represents the black community, meaning that only the people with rights in America can call themselves American.
To describe his thoughts on America as a country as a black man, he contrasts the well-known term "American dream with the words American nightmare", as he perceives life in America as such (I. 27). By doing this, he emphasizes how much the American system negatively impacts black people, as the American dream is seen as such a big part of the American nationality and identity and desirable, but not even achievable for black people because their lives are the exact opposite of what the American dream is.
When speaking about the new strategies of the young black people, he enumerates what happens if black people do not vote and uses a parallel structure: "It'll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It'll be ballots, or it'll be bullets. It'll be liberty, or it'll be death" (I. 34 f.). The realized result of this parallelism and enumeration is to highlight how violent the civil-rights movement can get if people do not act and vote now. The reciprocating violence that was shown to black people for years and results out of that is justified by Malcolm X with the saying "what's good for the goose is good for the gander", which means that one person should get treated the same way another person is treated (l. 41 f.).
To illustrate the number of black people that were and still are oppressed and exploited for the thrive of white people in America, he uses the metaphor of Uncle Sam's hands dripping with blood (1.34), as many black people died for America as a nation.
In conclusion, it can be said that Malcolm X focuses on the issue of oppression in his speech and heavily appeals to black people to take action and vote to gain the rights they deserve. Therefore, the impression that the addressed audience of the given speech are black people and the intention is to educate them and to make it plain that they must use their power to vote to make changes in America, especially regarding the civil-rights movement, which was prominent during that time.