Fire and Ice: A Rhetorical Analysis of Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” and J. F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address
Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy were two contemporaneous political leaders, who delivered powerful and memorable speeches in the United States of American, during the Cold War and the civil rights struggles. While both speak about freedom and human rights in their country and the world, While John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address is a rational division of waters between good and evil, going against poverty and enslavement, Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” looks to viscerally fight against an oppressive, blood-thirsty entity.
There is a structural difference in the way both of these speakers perceive the supreme leader they are under: while Malcolm X sees him as evil, Kennedy sees him as good. For the first author, Uncle Sam, the white man and America, terms that are used interchangeably throughout the speech, is politically oppressive (1), economically exploitive, socially degrading (1). He sees himself as “a victim of the American system”, which has a “nightmare” instead of a “dream (1-2); it demands a blood sacrifice (3), to which Negros have contributed (2). On the other hand, for Kennedy there is a categorical divide between good and evil, drawing a great schism between the two. God gives man his rights (Kennedy 1), and liberty is his goal, as it upholds God’s gift; poverty and oppression are his enemies, with “dark powers of destruction unleashed by science” (Kennedy 1). Although both authors madean argument for human rights for all, this conception of the nature of the supreme being they suggest, will determine the actions to take.
While Kennedy’s battle is rational and eloquent, constantly opposing elements —there are two polarizations even in the second paragraph—, and utilizing logical arguments to do good, Malcolm X looks for freedom viscerally, disowning whatever actions he may be provoked to do if cornered with violence, as he would be “insane” (3). The first uses longer sentences, with elaborate vocabulary, references and logic; the second relies on evoking the resentment of the oppressed against the oppressor, using short sentences, common vocabulary and informal development. This is also coherent with the audience they are directing themselves to: while Malcolm X directs himself to the common ma, Kennedy directs himself to government officials both domestic and international, too.
In conclusion, even though both of these excellent, influential speeches are about rallying for freedom, they present some differences. Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech is an emotion-driven discourse against an oppressive absolute authority, with a consequent call to oppose him; on the other hand, Kennedy’s inaugural address speaks rationally and eloquently about a benevolent supreme being, thus having a moral imperative to follow him and do good.
Kennedy, John F. “Inaugural Address”. Document given by the teacher.
X, Malcolm. “The Ballot or the Bullet”. Document given by the teacher.