Although he had only left the Nation of Islam in March, things moved quickly for Malcolm X during the following month. In that time he had formed his new religious organization, Muslim Mosque Inc., delivered speeches at Harvard University and New York’s Rockland Palace, visited the Senate to observe a civil-rights filibuster, faced eviction from his home in Queens, and prepared to complete one of the Five Pillars of Islam: the Hajj. Amongst this hectic schedule, Malcolm had begun to consciously fashion himself in the mold of evangelist Billy Graham. During this period he delivered a speech which, along with “Message to the Grass Roots,” would come to be his most widely quoted. “The Ballot or the Bullet,” as it was called, was ranked in 2008 as the seventh most significant speech of 20th century by leading scholars of American public address.
Malcolm had delivered a similar speech several times in late March, but it was his address at a debate with Louis Lomax at Cory Methodist Church in Cleveland which is best remembered. The event was sponsored by CORE and between two- and three-thousand attended. As he had done the previous week in New York, Malcolm stressed that although he considered himself a Muslim, “unity is the right religion.” Many took only the message of violence from the speech; he had recently promoted the formation of “rifle clubs” and reiterated that blacks were constitutionally within their rights to defend themselves and their property if the government failed to do so. However, what had changed dramatically from years past and the rhetoric of the Nation of Islam, was the possibility for reform through voting. Where he had previously described voting as a bourgeois pastime for the “Uncle Tom” and the “house Negro,” he now recognized the potential of such armament. As always, he still prescribed caution and skepticism: “A ballot is like a bullet. You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.” But, although he still believed himself to be “carrying into action the teaching of Elijah Muhammad,” Malcolm had also taken a bold step toward the possibility of reformism.
Malcolm had begun to carve out a position of his own in the political landscape, one which was neither the apoliticism of Elijah Muhammad nor the non-violent resistance of Martin Luther King. He continued to speak to the growing constituency of young black nationalists within the civil rights movement who saw the value and potential in political processes yet the need for self-defense and militant mobilization.
We at the Center for Contemporary Black History are deeply saddened by the loss of our friend and mentor, Dr. Manning Marable. Thank you to all who have reached out to us, Dr. Marable’s family, and the Columbia community; your words have meant a lot to all of us.
We know that Dr. Marable would want us to continue publishing the Malcolmology blog; together with his stepson Mike Tyner, we will be continuing to work toward the completion of the documentary film on Malcolm X. Over the coming months, we will be updating this blog with content and updates about Dr. Marable’s work, life, and legacy.
For sending of condolences, please contact:
Courtney Teague: email@example.com
For inquiries regarding the content and publication of Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention, please contact:
Kevin Loughran: firstname.lastname@example.org
“A Eulogy for Manning Marable” By Russell Rickford
In early August, prior to Elijah Muhammad’s instructions regarding the march, the Messenger had written Malcolm X with another warning: “Be careful about mentioning Kennedy in your talks and printed matters by name; use U.S.A. or the American Government.” On December 1, 1963, Malcolm spoke in place of Muhammad, who again had taken ill. At the Manhattan Center, he delivered a speech entitled “God’s Judgment of White America,” before a crowd of 700 mostly Mosque No. 7 members. However, the crowd also comprised a significant minority of non-Muslim blacks and members of the white press. With National Secretary John Ali in the audience, Malcolm was sure to address the religious aspects of the NOI’s program, stressing that followers had been practicing the five pillars of Islam and making pilgrimage since Muhammad first broke ground in 1959. The speech was not altogether void of politics, though, and Malcolm argued - as he had in the past several months - that the “Negro revolution” was controlled by the government and white liberals. Again he anonymously placed Martin Luther King at the forefront of this fraudulent revolt: “Revolutions are never peaceful, never loving, never nonviolent. Nor are they compromising. Revolutions are destructive and bloody.”
However, it was not such political indictment which would earn the ire of Muhammad and the Chicago ruling elite, but rather Malcolm’s comments in the question and answer period. Despite the explicit instructions handed down by Muhammad, he answered a reporter’s question regarding the recent assassination of President Kennedy with the analogy of “chickens coming home to roost.” “Being an old farm boy myself,” he said, “chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” Although many attending the speech thought little of his statement at the time, the Times ran a story the following day with the title: “Malcolm X Scores U.S. and Kennedy.” On December 4, Muhammad announced that the minister had been suspended for 90 days, even canceling all his scheduled appearances for a month-long “mourning period” out of respect for the late president. Still described as “the man rumored to be the next leader of the Black Muslims” in the press, Malcolm responded to the suspension with his usual humility: “Yes, I’m wrong. I disobeyed Muhammad’s order. He was justified 100 per cent [sic]. I agree I need to withdraw from public appearance.”
The details of Malcolm’s suspension were clear: he would retain his administrative duties at Mosque No. 7, but withdraw from all public activity. However, both Malcolm and many mosque members were unsure of exactly how rigid these boundaries were drawn. The minister continued to make statements to the press when asked over the telephone about his suspension. Likewise, close associates at the mosque spoke to Malcolm in private but knew that such conversations were a direct violation of Muhammad’s edict. The statement was a public relations faux pas; however, for Muhammad to declare as he did in a public telegram, that “we with the world are very shocked at the assassination of President Kennedy,’” seemed bizarre for a sect which promoted total separation and political sovereignty. What became painfully clear to many was that Muhammad and Malcolm’s enemies in Chicago had seen an opportunity to enact authority. Such public suspension restored order and quickly escalated hostilities to the point where his return seemed to all besides Malcolm a grave impossibility.
Although he could not possibly have anticipated it, the last two months of 1963 would come to define the trajectory of Malcolm X’s final two years. First, Malcolm dined with his mother for the first time in 25 years; she was then released from Kalamazoo State Hospital into the care of his brother Philbert in their hometown of Lansing, Michigan. A week later, Malcolm delivered one of his most legendary speeches, “A Message to the Grass Roots” to nearly 2,000 listeners at the Northern Negro Grass Roots Leadership Conference held at Detroit’s King Solomon Baptist Church. Considered by many today to be one of the top 100 American speeches of the 20th century, Malcolm’s speech unified many of the strands of black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and third-world revolutionary thought which had been emerging in his deliveries for years. Scholar Richard Brent Turner described the speech as a “classic black nationalist speech … [which was] an important signal to insiders and outsiders that Malcolm X had outgrown the political conservativism of the Nation of Islam.”
Indeed, sponsored by Albert Cleage’s Freedom Now Party, the speech was recognized by many outside the NOI as a move toward the radical left. Labor activist Grace Lee Boggs recalled her similar impressions of the speech: “His speech was so analytical, so much less nationalist and more internationalist than Malcolm’s previous speeches, that I whispered in the ear of Rev. Cleage, who was sitting next to me on the platform, ‘Malcolm’s going to split with Elijah Muhammad.’” Likewise, Gloria Richardson, who first met Malcolm X at the speech and went on to collaborate with him in the civil rights organization ACT, remembered: “That was when I really wondered how long it would be before he broke with [the NOI].”
The rhetorical markers which signaled an ideological shift to many were Malcolm’s connections between anti-colonialism, the Bandung Conference, and the struggle of blacks in the U.S. Furthermore, he drew upon aspects of his “Farce on Washington” speech and distinguished between a “Negro” and “black” revolution as he had done the previous month on the West Coast. Again using the parable of the “house Negro” and the “field Negro,” Malcolm claimed that a revolution centered around non-violent activism was not revolutionary at all. “Revolution is bloody,” he charged, “revolution is hostile, revolution knows no compromise … If you’re afraid of black nationalism you’re afraid of revolution. And if you love revolution, you love black nationalism.” Ultimately, choosing to give such a speech in Detroit, the center of labor movements and black working class radicalism in the 1960s, opened Malcolm X to an entirely new audience from that of the NOI.
The text of Malcolm’s speech is available here.