Malcolm X (1925-1965)
Contributing Editor: Keith D. Miller
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Malcolm X is one of the most controversial figures one could study. Most students, recognizing his enormous impact on recent American culture, will revel in discussions--or passionate debates--about his merits. Those who have read the popular Autobiography of Malcolm X --or seen the Spike Lee movie based on it--will argue that Malcolm X was foolish to be duped by Elijah Muhammed or brilliant to recognize that he had been duped; that Malcolm X reached a beautiful, universal vision at the end of his life or that he did not; that he was unforgivably sexist or that his sexism was typical of the period.
Students will invariably attempt to relate Malcolm X to the 1991 racial uprising in Los Angeles and to other issues in race relations, including those on their own campuses.
The first need is to direct the students, at the very least initially, to focus on "The Ballot or the Bullet" instead of jumping to an ultimate verdict on the Autobiography, on Malcolm X, or even on race relations in America.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Malcolm X used the same major rhetorical strategy in "The Ballot or the Bullet" that he employed in other speeches and in the Autobiography. He attacked the well-established, sometimes unexamined tendency of African-Americans to identify with white America, passionately insisting that blacks identify instead with Africans, with their slave ancestors, and with each other. In that vein, he declares, "No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the twenty-two million black people who are victims of Americanism." Speaking to American blacks, he explains, "You're nothing but Africans. Nothing but Africans."
The use of "X" as a replacement for a given last name is part of this rhetorical strategy. Malcolm X urged all African-Americans to reject their last names, which were those of slave-owners, replacing them with "X" to stand for the lost African names of their ancestors. Thousands belonging to the Nation of Islam adopted this practice. Because the "X" substituted for last names, it defined members of the Nation as a single "family" of brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles. The use of "X" also bracketed the names of other African-Americans, implicitly declaring that all of them were mistakenly identifying with whites, their slave masters.
The issue of violence loomed large in Malcolm X's rhetoric. In this speech and elsewhere, he refused to repudiate violence, realizing that most of the white Americans who applauded King's nonviolence would not react nonviolently themselves in the face of brutality. By refusing to embrace nonviolence, Malcolm X made King look more moderate and more palatable than he would otherwise have appeared.
By the time of "The Ballot or the Bullet," race dominated America's domestic agenda. Millions watched police dogs tear into young African-American children protesting for integration in Birmingham. Presidents Kennedy and Johnson responded by proposing major civil rights legislation, which passed in the summer following "The Ballot or the Bullet."
Though many believed that such an initiative signified racial progress, Malcolm X disagreed. Not only did conservative whites fail blacks, he maintained, so did "all these white liberals" who were supposedly allies. As he explains in this speech, many white liberals belonged to the Democratic party, which was often dominated by southern segregationists. Unlike white liberals and the NAACP, Malcolm X did not want blacks to integrate white hotels. He wanted blacks to own the hotels.
Malcolm X's own bleak childhood and criminal young adulthood helped shape his radical views and gave him insight into the lives of his primary audience--hundreds of thousands of African-Americans trapped in the ghettos of America's largest cities.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Malcolm X's jeremiads owe something to the appeals of Marcus Garvey, an earlier leader who instilled racial pride, and to Malcolm X's own father, a Garvey disciple. Even though Malcolm X advocated Islam instead of Christianity, his style and impact derive in part from the role of the black Protestant preacher--a revered patriarchal figure free to denounce from the pulpit whomever he saw fit.
Malcolm X delivered "The Ballot or the Bullet" to a predominantly African-American meeting in Cleveland of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was shifting from nonviolent protest to Malcolm X-like black nationalism. Helping provoke this shift were speeches like this one, which was received enthusiastically.
Students can compare this talk to those that Malcolm X gave to largely white listeners. See, for example, the addresses collected in Malcolm X Speaks at Harvard (1991), edited by Archie Epps.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Comparing the language of King and Malcolm X can be helpful. In some ways their analyses of the evils institutionalized in American life are quite similar. Though Malcolm X's blowtorch denunciations are harsher than King's, the main difference lies in King's willingness to grant whites a way around the guilt that King so skillfully evoked. In King's rhetorical world, whites-- even ardent segregationists--could listen, change their ways, and learn to practice love and democracy. King claimed that his methods could actually win opponents over to his view.
During most of his career Malcolm X gave whites no such break. Instead he demanded separation from whites. He regarded integration not as a goal, but as a sentimental fiction. Toward the end of his life, he seemed more accepting of some whites, but his evolving vision was not entirely clear.
As James Cone explains, toward the end of their lives, King and Malcolm X were, in some ways, thinking alike. Both realized that, without economic muscle, masses of blacks would never prosper, no matter how much this nation espoused the theory of integration. In "I've Been to the Mountaintop," King stressed the need for economic self-help and racial solidarity. For both leaders, the divisions of economic class loomed as important as--and were inseparable from--the issue of race.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Who is Malcolm X's primary audience? If it is primarily African-Americans, why did he address whites as well and the white news media? Why did he (co)author a best-seller often read by and, in some ways, aimed at whites? Why did he criticize whites in such an uncompromising fashion instead of flattering his audience as speakers usually do? Why did he define grounds of disagreement with whites instead of grounds of agreement, which orators usually seek and are taught to seek? Why did he also often criticize blacks who heard him--sometimes calling them "brainwashed"--and why did they applaud him when he did so?
If Malcolm X was sincere in rejecting nonviolence, why did he characteristically refuse to carry a gun and always, in fact, practice nonviolence? If blacks were brutally oppressed, as he claimed, and if retaliation was justified, as he claimed, why did he never lead such retaliation? Since he gave fiery speeches but never organized either nonviolent or violent protests against whites, was he sincere? Or was he a "paper tiger"? Did he mean to be taken literally? If not, how did he mean to be taken?
Millions continue to read the Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), co-authored by Alex Haley. I strongly recommend Remembering Malcolm (1992) by Malcolm X's assistant minister Benjamin Karim, who shows a sensitive leader inside the Muslim mosque and reveals information available nowhere else.
No thoroughly reliable, full-scale biography of Malcolm X exists. Many details about his life (especially before his public career) remain unknown. In Malcolm (1991), a detailed, provocative biography, Bruce Perry claimed that the Autobiography features blatant exaggerations and outright falsehoods. But some of Perry's own claims seem unsupportable. Joe Wood compiled Malcolm X: In Our Own Image (1992), which contains helpful essays by Cornel West, Arnold Rampersad, John Edgar Wideman, Patricia Hill Collins, and others. In Martin and Malcolm and America (1991), James Cone usefully compares and contrasts King and Malcolm X, as do John Lucaites and Celeste Condit in "Reconstructing Equality: Culturetypal and Counter-Cultural Rhetorics in the Martyred Black Vision." Communication Monographs 57 (1990): 5-24.