By Ron Daniels
NNPA Guest Columnist
This year is the 50th anniversary of El Hajj Malik El Shabazz a/k/a Omawale, “our Black Shining Prince” a/k/a Malcolm X’s The Ballot or the Bullet speech. It is a milestone because it comes at a critical juncture in Malcolm’s political evolution and development. After his painful departure from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm is striving to assure his devoted followers that Black Nationalism is still the philosophy/ideology that guides his work. He is also setting the stage for a more active engagement in the Civil Rights Movement by offering a critique of the capitalist political economy and its dominant political parties.
The Ballot or the Bullet signals a transition in Malcolm’s evolution, one that witnesses him seeking to build Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity as independent structures to advance his vision of Black liberation. Tragically, Malcolm was cut-down before his vision could reach fruition. Nonetheless, it may be useful to examine the tenets articulated in this speech to assess their relevance fifty years later.
Nineteen-sixty-four was a crucial presidential election year. Expectations in Black America were very high in the wake of the historic March on Washington a year earlier. Black leaders and their allies were pressing President Lyndon Johnson and Congress to pass substantive legislation to ensure the rights of African Americans as first class citizens in this nation. Breaking with his prior posture of non-engagement in electoral politics, a skeptical Malcolm X indicated that 1964 offered America the opportunity to prove that it was serious about guaranteeing the rights of its formerly enslaved sons and daughters. He suggested that this might be America’s last chance; therefore he declared, “This just might be the year of the ballot or the bullet.”
This was an implicit warning that Blacks were not obligated to “suffer peacefully” in the face of the ongoing, unmitigated onslaught of a White supremacist system and its policies. Because he observed the virulent intransigence of southern Democrats who labeled themselves “Dixiecrats” and the reluctance of many Republicans to overtly embracecivil rights legislation, Malcolm had little faith that either Party could be trusted to promote and defend the rights of Black people over the long haul..
Malcolm was also firm about the importance of Black Nationalism as the ideological framework for the Black Freedom Struggle. In essence, Malcolm believed that Black people should control the neighborhoods/communities where we are the majority.
Fifty year later, the question is how does Black progress measure up in relation to the tenets laid out in The Ballot or the Bullet? In 1964 few would have imagined that by 2008 the United States would have its first African American president.
Black people are still over reliant on a Democratic Party which can afford to take us for granted because the Tea Party dominated Republican alternative is unthinkable as an option. Worse still, with the dismantling of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition as a mass-based, progressive force, Black America does not have a viable independent political organization to promote and defend Black interests based on an agenda. The Congressional Black Caucus does a reasonable job of promoting Black interests, but it is locked into the Democratic Party and has limited capacity to utilize mass protests and other non-electoral tactics to advance a Black agenda.
At the local level Malcolm would be distressed by the lack of real control of the politics and politicians in the Black community. We have more Black elected officials than ever before, but far too many of them are out of touch with the vision of the Black political leader whose primary mission is to expose the contradictions and limitations of the “system” while mobilizing/organizing to deliver the maximum goods and services to the people. Black folks are fed-up with too many self-serving, self-aggrandizing, vision-less elected officials.
Fortunately, Malcolm would be pleased that there are a few Black political leaders who adhere to his commitment to Black empowerment. Former Detroit Council Members Kwame Kenyatta and JoAnn Watson,former Brooklyn CouncilmanCharles Barron(Kenyatta, Watson and Barron left office voluntarily or were term-limited), Newark Councilman and candidate for Mayor Ras Baraka and Mayor Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, Miss. are on the short list of Black elected officials who have consistently used their positions to empower Black and marginalized people.
The “Black community” is far more dispersed today than it was in 1964 because of the flight of the Black middle class and gentrification – which has become the “Negro removal” program of the 21st Century. Vanishing “chocolate cities” are the order of the day as Black people seem powerless to “control” our neighborhoods/communities.
The bottom line is that 50 years after The Ballot or the Bullet, remembering Malcolm is not a nostalgic exercise. The lessons from this milestone speech are still strikingly relevant today. A healthy dose of Black Nationalism as Malcolm prescribed it is not only still in order, it’s imperative.
Ron Daniels is president of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He can be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org.