Jan 20, 2011

"The Ballot or The Bullet," Malcolm X and Joyce Kaufman

After Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people were shot on January 8, a lot of (liberal) people argued that the political vitriol of the past few years was to blame. Joyce Kaufman, a conservative radio host, emerged as a prime example of this trend because last summer, she told a Tea Party rally:

“I am convinced that the most important thing the founding fathers did to ensure me my First Amendment rights was they gave me a Second Amendment. And if ballots don’t work, bullets will. I’ve never in my life thought that the day would come where I would tell individual citizens that you are responsible for being the militia that the founding fathers designed – they were very specific. You need to be prepared to fight tyranny.”

When I heard that, my mind went back forty-seven years to Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Speaking in Cleveland in April 1964, Malcolm X used the conveniently alliterative juxtaposition of “ballot” and “bullet” to argue that African-Americans needed to turn to black nationalism to strengthen their communities politically and economically. Specifically, they had to use their voting power to elect candidates who would represent their needs. His anger that day focused on politicians – especially in the Democratic party – who failed to recognize Black voting power, protect Blacks’ voting rights, and represent the African-Americans who voted for them. As he told his audience, speaking of Lyndon Johnson and Congressional Democrats, “they have got a con game going on, a political con game, and you and I are in the middle.”

Of course, he had more radical demands than for Blacks to exercise their voting power. He also argued that all members of Congress elected “from a state or a district where the voting rights of the people are violated,” who were therefore elected by constituencies that excluded Blacks, “should be expelled from Congress.” Because Blacks made up numerical majorities in many of these districts, he insisted that when free and fair elections were finally held, Black candidates would win these seats.

First and foremost, then, he argued that Blacks should use all available power to attain representation in the government and to strengthen their communities from within. But then he got to the bullets, saying that “if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet.” If Blacks were not able to gain full political representation appropriate to their numbers, they would have to take more dramatic steps to ensure that representation. 

Probably the most controversial thing he said was: "We will work with anybody, anywhere, at any time, who is genuinely interested in tackling the problem head-on, nonviolently as long as the enemy is nonviolent, but violent when the enemy gets violent….[W]here the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it's time for Negroes to defend themselves. Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle.” 

This recommendation, of course, terrified many whites, both liberal and conservative, and infuriated many black civil rights leaders working in the nonviolent tradition. The FBI’s file documenting its investigation into Malcolm X (not solely related to this speech, of course) amounted to over 4,000 pages. Malcolm X never turned violent himself, although he did die from an assassin’s bullet less thab a year after giving this speech.

I’ve been mulling over the two speeches since the Giffords shooting but still can’t decide what I think about the relationship between political speech and political violence, which is why I haven’t written about this sooner. The first thing that struck me is the similarity in message: both asserted their ultimate Constitutional right, enshrined in the 2nd Amendment, to defend themselves from tyranny when their government failed to provide protection. But we interpret these speeches very differently, based primarily on our own political persuasions and our understandings of the contexts in which Malcolm X and Kaufman spoke.

My strongest feeling is that words have consequences – but they have many consequences, to many people, and their meanings are not always so obvious. A group of scholars called Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” the 7th most important American speech in the 20th century. I’m fairly confident that no one will give a similar honor to Joyce Kaufman, which I think testifies to the fact that we have to interpret political speech not only by the words it contains but also by the context in which it is contained. The words “ballot” and “bullet” meant very different things to Malcolm X and Joyce Kaufman, and they used those words in totally disparate contexts. I don’t think either speech directly caused any violence, but I do think they both reflected and contributed to political climates in which deep tensions in the American political system exploded into violence, both literal and figurative. Let’s just hope that the wave of assassinations of the mid- to late-1960s has no parallels in the next few years. 

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