Towards the Ballot or the Bullet: Violent Activism in the Speeches of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela

A picture from the funeral of Carole Robertson, a 14-year-old African American girl who was killed in a bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 16th, 1963. The bombers were Ku Klux Klansmen who opposed desegregation and the principles of the civil rights movements. Four girls between the ages of 11 and 14 were killed in the blast.

The Activists

Malcolm X, a Muslim minister based out of Harlem at the time of his speech, provided a radical approach and voice to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He often rhetorically clashed with key figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., disagreeing with the passive, nonviolent elements of the movement. The 1963 March on Washington was described by Malcolm X as “the farce on Washington,” and he often labelled his fellow African-American activists as puppets or “stooges” of the white establishment, believing them to be complicit in the oppression of their fellow African-Americans whenever they compromised. His 1964 speech titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” was delivered at a time when Malcolm X was reconsidering his relationship with the Nation of Islam, a move that garnered death threats towards the activist and his family. After advocating for violence in extreme circumstances for much of his oratorical life, Malcolm X himself was assassinated by Nation of Islam gunmen on February 21st, 1965. He was 39 years old.

Nelson Mandela was involved with the African National Congress (ANC) throughout the 1950s, opposing the South African white establishment’s imposition of the apartheid system. In 1960 the South African government banned the ANC from the country, and as a result Mandela and his fellow activists formed the guerrilla Marxist paramilitary group Umkhonto we Sizwe, Xhosa for “Spear of the Nation.” His “I Am Prepared to Die” speech was delivered during the 1962-1964 Rivonia Trial proceedings. Despite the government’s attempts to censor the proceedings, the speech garnered international attention and support for the release of Mandela after he was arrested on charges of sedition. He was later sentenced to life imprisonment and hard labour until he was released from prison in 1990. He became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, 30 years after his Rivonia Trial speech was delivered.

Though Mandela may be remembered more so today for post-prison era reconciliatory and nonviolent views, he shared a similar views with Malcolm X in the 1960s when it came to the power of violence (or “violent revolution”) as a means of combating institutionalized white supremacy, even going so far as to establish a paramilitary organization. Though both of these figures are often portrayed negatively by (white) “centrists” and “non-radicals,” it is worth mentioning that both of these activists saw violence as a last resort – if the ballot could not secure rights and freedom for their people, then these men were willing to turn to the bullet for their respective struggles. Both men sought harmony between whites and blacks, but both men also recognized that the white establishment was less than enthusiastic when it came to voluntarily sacrificing privilege and power in the pursuit of this harmony.

Additionally, these men were not “anti-white,” but they were against the exploitation, degradation, and oppression of African peoples at the hands of the white establishment in their respective countries. For the sake of this post we will now ignore the disparaging labels so many critics have used in order to delegitimize the views and struggles of these activists, and instead we will focus on the substance of their philosophical and ideological views. Instead of paraphrasing, I have decided to preserve the words of these powerful orators so as to refrain from convoluting or misinterpreting their views.

“The Ballot or the Bullet” by Malcolm X – Select Quotes

  • “It doesn’t mean that we’re anti-white, but it does mean we’re anti-exploitation, we’re anti-degradation, we’re anti-oppression.”
  • “If we don’t do something real soon, I think you’ll have to agree that we’re going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet. It’s one or the other in 1964. It isn’t that time is running out — time has run out!”
  • “So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare. ”  
  • ” You don’t have anybody putting blocks in your path but people who are a part of the government. The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education.”
  • “In Jacksonville, those were teenagers, they were throwing Molotov cocktails. Negroes have never done that before. But it shows you there’s a new deal coming in. There’s new thinking coming in. There’s new strategy coming in. It’ll be Molotov cocktails this month, hand grenades next month, and something else next month. It’ll be ballots, or it’ll be bullets. It’ll be liberty, or it will be death.”
  • “This old, tricky blue eyed liberal who is supposed to be your and my friend, supposed to be in our corner, supposed to be subsidizing our struggle, and supposed to be acting in the capacity of an adviser, never tells you anything about human rights. They keep you wrapped up in civil rights. And you spend so much time barking up the civil-rights tree, you don’t even know there’s a human-rights tree on the same floor.”
  • “The social philosophy of black nationalism only means that we have to get together and remove the evils, the vices, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other evils that are destroying the moral fiber of our community. We our selves have to lift the level of our community, the standard of our community to a higher level, make our own society beautiful so that we will be satisfied in our own social circles and won’t be running around here trying to knock our way into a social circle where we’re not wanted.”
  • “So, you’re dealing with a man whose bias and prejudice are making him lose his mind, his intelligence, every day. He’s frightened. He looks around and sees what’s taking place on this earth, and he sees that the pendulum of time is swinging in your direction. The dark people are waking up. They’re losing their fear of the white man.”
  • “It’s time for you and me to stop sitting in this country, letting some cracker senators, Northern crackers and Southern crackers, sit there in Washington, D.C., and come to a conclusion in their mind that you and I are supposed to have civil rights. There’s no white man going to tell me anything about my rights. Brothers and sisters, always remember, if it doesn’t take senators and congressmen and presidential proclamations to give freedom to the white man, it is not necessary for legislation or proclamation or Supreme Court decisions to give freedom to the black man.”
  • “Black people are fed up with the dillydallying, pussyfooting, compromising approach that we’ve been using toward getting our freedom. We want freedom now, but we’re not going to get it saying “We Shall Overcome.” We’ve got to fight until we overcome.”

“I Am Prepared to Die” by Nelson Mandela – Select Quotes

  • “The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and the whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation. There are two ways to break out of poverty. The first is by formal education, and the second is by the worker acquiring a greater skill at his work and thus higher wages. As far as Africans are concerned, both these avenues of advancement are deliberately curtailed by legislation.”
  • “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy. White supremacy implies black inferiority. Legislation designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion.”
  • “Poverty and the breakdown of family life have secondary effects. Children wander about the streets of the townships because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go to school, or no parents at home to see that they go to school, because both parents (if there be two) have to work to keep the family alive. This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to growing violence which erupts not only politically, but everywhere. Life in the townships is dangerous.”
  • “Africans want a just share in the whole of South Africa; they want security and a stake in society. Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.”
  • “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”


  1. During his pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X wrote a letter in which he stated: “During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug – while praying to the same God – with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana. We were truly all the same (brothers) – because their belief in one God had removed the white from their minds, the white from their behavior, and the white from their attitude ” Knowing that this letter was written within weeks of his “Ballot or Bullet” speech, do you think that this quote clashes with his “ballot or bullets” ideology, or are the views expressed in both of these documents reconciliatory?
  2. Broadly speaking, is violence compatible with modern-day “progressive” notions of justice, or does it perpetuate a cycle of retribution? Do the ends justify the means of when it comes to the notion of violent revolution?
  3. Both Mandela and Malcolm X speak of the moral degradation of African peoples due to the socioeconomic issues that plague these communities as a result of the “ghetto system.” Today, do you think that the perpetuation of socioeconomic suffering due to environmental racism is a persistent issue in Canada? How could the philosophies of Mandela and Malcolm X be applied to the Canadian example?
  4. A number of commentators assert that apartheid did not suddenly end when Mandela came into power, and that “economic apartheid” is still very much the case in South Africa. Does this speak to a deficiency in Mandela’s approach to black nationalism? Speaking hypothetically, how would Malcolm X have approached the South African apartheid system if he were in Mandela’s shoes?
  5. Will the establishment (or “Man”) ever give up its superior position voluntarily? Or is realistic to assume that one must always struggle for expanded rights, justice, and power if they belong to a minority group in a society?

4 thoughts on “Towards the Ballot or the Bullet: Violent Activism in the Speeches of Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela

  1. In regards to your fifth question, the quotation that stood out to me most in Mandela’s speech and in your summary was his comment that white supremacy implies black inferiority. While this quote is short, it is carries deep meaning. White supremacy cannot exist without black inferiority – it is dependent on it and it derives its upper-hand by virtue of the existence of blackness. In other words, white supremacy is everything that black inferiority is not. It is a form of definition by opposition. Likewise, Malcolm X also touches on the fact that the subjugation of African Americans was a source of empowerment for (white) legislators and that African Americans were themselves largely responsible for allowing this type of exploitation to occur. Due to the power associated with feeling superior, those in positions of superiority voluntarily admit to their privilege only in the rarest of cases. For the most part, those who are marginalized have little choice but to fight for their rights until they have no more fight left in them or until change is attained. Oftentimes, persistent struggle from below is the only way to awaken the consciousness of those who are superior by constantly checking their privilege until they come to understand what their privilege really entails.


    1. Great point Karina! I have a theory that today’s political climate in the United States is a backlash from certain sections of the white population believing that their superiority and supremacy in society is waning, or even in some extreme cases, being directly challenged by minority populations. We’ve seen a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, with some fringes of the right (neo-Nazis) even going so far as to claim that there is a “Great Replacement” of the white population underway. Additionally, activist movements such as BLM are seen as a direct challenge to this institutionalized white supremacy. When BLM turned potentially “violent,” or at the very least “destructive,” it was a lose/lose for the movement however. The “center” (and predominantly white) portion of the population was unsettled by violent rhetoric and the concept that power could be redistributed along more equitable lines in modern America. On the other hand, the black population was also further vilified and framed as a destructive and ignorant force that was willing to “undermine” the supposed progress achieved by the civil rights movements. Either you compromise and tone down the more radical elements of your movement when in itself your movement is born out of radical conditions, or you turn to violence – I do not know if there are any other alternatives honestly. Malcolm X is still extremely relevant in the North American context, and I’m really glad he was featured in the readings – looking forward to the discussion!


  2. In response to your second question, I think that forms of (violent) direct action are incompatible with liberal notions of justice. The Malcolm X quote warning of liberalism taking away from real change still rings true today. Malcolm X specifically warned about the ability of liberals to distract away from what he considered to be the real issue. Here, he makes a distinction between civil rights and human rights. He argues that civil rights are legal rights while human rights are intrinsic rights. In a modern conception of justice, people are often encouraged to seek legal means of attaining justice. Even public demonstrations must occur with the permission of the state. Warrants must be attained and demonstrators are often ‘escorted’ by law enforcement.

    In response to the third question, environmental racism and infringements on Indigenous peoples rights and land claims warrant violent direct action. In the case of Wet’suwet’en, the Canadian state sanctioned the building of pipelines on Indigenous sovereign land without the landowners consent.This infringement of rights hasn’t effectively been battled through legal means. In this case, various forms of direct action, including violent direct action, is warranted.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nice write up and discussion; to answer your second question which got cut off due to time restraints today, I think violence is compatible with the modern-day notions of justice. I was to elucidate on what I said at the end of class today about how his comments were a reflection of the time period and how this impacts your question. This particular aspect happened in 1964 and he was dead by 1965 so its probably likely that his views here were consistent with his views leading up to the end of his life. In 1964, this was the Goldwater/Johnson election which was really a sea-change in American politics. This was the first Republican candidate who broke the mold in regards to civil rights. For so long the GOP was the party who championed interests of African Americans and then this suddenly changed. Goldwater was a political flipflopper who changed positions to further his career as he saw fit. He basically disguised his racism through policy decisions, though people saw through this. To many, Goldwater was everything that the GOP couldn’t become. To suddenly have political backing stripped away in only a few years is pretty damning. So, this is where I can understand why violence would be the answer. What’s the alternative for him at this point? For so long Democrats didn’t champion the rights of him and other African Americans and now the GOP won’t either. So, yes, in certain times, violence is an option. When everything is against you, what options do you have? To effect change is the goal and there are many ways to do so. I think it should be a last ditch option and only in significantly perilous situations, but the option of violence should never be taken off the table, whether in 1964 or 2019.


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