Malcolm Speaks: The Ballot or the Bullet


On April 12, 1964, one month after splitting with the NOI, Malcolm X gave his “Ballot or the Bullet” speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit (he’d given the address nine days earlier in Cleveland, but the Detroit version is regarded by some scholars as definitive). It was the fullest declaration of his black nationalist philosophy. Mainstream black ministers in Detroit tried to block Malcolm X from using the church, saying “separatist ideas can do nothing but set back the colored man’s cause.” But the church hall had already been rented out for the event.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” became one of Malcolm X’s most recognizable phrases, and the speech was one of his greatest orations. Two thousand people – including some of his opponents — turned out to hear him speak in Detroit.. President Lyndon Johnson was running for reelection in 1964, and Malcolm X declared it “the year of the ballot or the bullet.” He outlined a new, global sensibility in the fight for racial justice: “We intend to expand [the freedom struggle] from the level of civil rights to the level of human rights.”

Malcolm was now free of the NOI’s ban on members participating in the mainstream civil rights movement. He encouraged black militants to get involved in voter registration drives and other forms of community organizing to redefine and expand the movement.7

The day after his Detroit speech, Malcolm X embarked on an overseas tour that included a life-changing pilgrimage to the Muslim holy city of Mecca. Known as the Hajj, the pilgrimage must be carried out at least once in a lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so. The racial diversity he experienced in the Middle East, especially among Muslims, led him to discard his strict notions of black separatism for a wider, more inclusive movement against white supremacy and colonialism. In the summer of 1964, Malcolm X announced a new effort, the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU).


Say It Loud: Great Speeches on Civil Rights and African American Identity. Eds., Catherine Ellis and Stephen Smith. The New Press, 2010, p. 1-18.

Download PDF version of: Malcolm X-The Ballot or the Bullet


Malcolm X delivered another version of “The Ballot or the Bullet” in Harlem on March 29, 1964. This version included Malcolm’s now infamous “Plymouth Rock” reference. Below, actor Denzel Washington recreates that moment:

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