In 1964, el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, otherwise known as Malcolm X, delivered a speech titled, “The Ballot or the Bullet.” He argued that the federal government’s failure to honor the inherent rights of Black people, by virtue of their humanity, has the potential for facilitating an explosion of what he called a dangerous racial powder keg, with all peoples caught in the crosshairs.
el-Shabazz said that the ballot or the bullet was a choice between, “liberty and death [a la Patrick Henry], freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.” He continued:
“Today, our people can see that we’re faced with a government conspiracy. This government has failed us. The senators who are filibustering concerning your and my rights, that’s the government… Any kind of act that’s designed to delay or deprive you and me, right now, of getting full rights, that’s the government that’s responsible. And anytime you find the government involved in a conspiracy to violate the citizenship or the civil rights of a people in 1964, then you are wasting your time going to that government expecting redress.”
Nearly 60 years after his speech, Black people have had their voting rights upended with the Shelby v. Holder ruling, leading to the passage of voter suppression laws in various states. There is potential for more this year. Voting Rights legislation failed in the Senate. It’s because of Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) refusal to vote down the filibuster. Conservative politicians around the country have outlawed the accurate teaching of U.S. History to preserve white ignorance as a means of sustaining white hegemony As the country gets browner.
el-Shabazz was certainly prophetic, if not an outright oracle.
Those truths intersect with a society with high gas prices, anti-protest legislation and the lack of baby formula. There’s also inflation, the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade and employers, like Tesla, demanding that workers return to offices, amidst a pandemic — even after making more money while workers were either working at home or on a hybrid schedule. Also, the lack of political will to pass legislation to restrict the sale of military-grade weapons like the AR-15. The AR-15 was the weapon of choice for the shooters in Buffalo and Uvalde.
It seems like that powder keg el-Shabazz was talking about is only getting bigger. Where does that leave the country?
It leaves the U.S. in a reality where folks whose backs are against the wall may have no other alternative than to live by the bullet because of legislation telling Black people and other people of color that the ballot isn’t for them, despite the 15th amendment.
At the NRA Convention last week, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) said, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Well, if the federal government refuses to pass gun legislation to stop the “bad guys” from getting assault rifles, and the supposed “good guys” may choose not to stop the “bad guys” as they chose not to in Uvalde, what else is there to do but get a gun, organize with other parents and form a unit to protect the children at school in shifts?
What alternative is there to the bullet to protect yourself in a stand your ground state, or any state with abortion bans or little to no gun laws?
What other alternative is there traditionally oppressed and marginalized people have — elderly Black people or Mexican school children — other than gun ownership when the government essentially says, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves? It’s no wonder that Black gun ownership has increased; the same is true for other people of color.
To be clear, I am not calling for mass violence as a solution to injustice, nor are Black people or any people of color. Neither did el-Shabazz call for mass violence, yet he gave the United States a warning:
“America is the only country in history in a position to bring about a revolution without violence and bloodshed… the only way without bloodshed that this can be brought about is that Black [people] has to be given full use of the ballot in every one of the fifty states. But if [not], then you are going to be faced with another man who forgets the ballot and starts using the bullet.”
Targeted groups may use the bullet to protect their children where the police refuse to. These groups could use the bullet to protect their most vulnerable from crazed white supremacists. They could use the bullet when accosted by one seeking to make a citizen arrest for making a personal choice.
Targeted groups might use the bullet because the immorality of policymakers leaves them feeling that they have no other choice.
In a choice between the ballot or the bullet, choosing the ballot should be a no-brainer. The lack of political will to do the right thing will push this country even further into chaos. It’ll look more like the wild west and less like the Greek polis.
Civility and decorum won’t save us. Pandering to white fears and guilt certainly won’t save us — it’s what got us here. What will save us is when freedom is for all and not only for some. And yet, somehow preventing people from voting is a greater priority than preventing mass shootings.
The age of the bullet over the ballot is well on its way. Unless somehow the United States embraces what el-Shabazz called the “bloodless revolution” — or else there will be more blood.
Rann Miller is the director of anti-bias and DEI initiatives as well as a high school social studies teacher for a school district located in Southern New Jersey. He’s also a freelance writer and founder of the Urban Education Mixtape, supporting urban educators and parents of students in urban schools. He is the author of the upcoming book, Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids, with an anticipated release date of February 2023. You can follow him on Twitter @UrbanEdDJ.