During the sixties, the civil right movement has spread, throughout United States, recognizing awareness everywhere in the world, as the Black Americans’ socio-political and economic revolt against the white treatment. Years after the end of slavery in United States, the status of the African Americans knew little changes, as they had no democratic rights, such as the right to vote, and they were publicly humiliated and brutalized, while the segregation still disallowed them to enter restaurants or other public spaces, despite the avid work of activists as Martin Luther King Jr. (Malcolm X “The Ballot or the Bullet”). Blacks were considered second class citizens and where forced to live in poverty, carrying on the lowest employments that could barely assure their living. All these aspects that defined how Black Americans were treated in the 1964 United States were addressed in Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”.
“The Ballot or the Bullet” speech represents Malcolm X’s human rights doctrine, entrenched in the Black Nationalism philosophy, through which he called his fellow black people to act against the “political oppression, economic exploitation and social degradation” (Malcolm X 13:18). The Black Nationalism described the social, economic and political situation of the African Americans, a segregated group, who did not enjoy the same rights and liberties as the white Americans, being discriminated for racial reasons from social institutions as schools or employment. Malcolm X shows in his speech that white Americans were considering blacks less than people, not their equals, but a marginalized class of people, of whom they could take advantage politically and economically by controlling their communities and not allowing them to become independent beings and enjoy democracy.
Through allegory, Malcolm X enforces his rhetorical arguments, showing the status of African Americans in 20th century U.S.: “our people are disillusioned, they’ve become disenchanted, they’ve become dissatisfied” (21:04). Moreover, the human rights activist uses the techniques of speech, which include intonation, dramatic pauses, a perfect diction and raised voiced for highlighting the key aspects of his discourse. The three elements of rhetoric, logos (the logic of his arguments), ethos (his credibility as a public figure) and pathos (the powerful emotions transmitted through rhetoric devices), are all incorporated in Malcolm X’s discourse. Furthermore, in his speech, Malcolm X also uses metaphors as rhetoric elements, for describing the democracy of America as hypocrisy, when related to the situation of African Americans, indicating that his people never saw the fruits of democracy in United States and never realized the American dream, but the “American nightmare” (Malcolm X 26:10).
As he explains across his speech, black Americans were represented socially, politically and economically as inferior to white Americans, because of their roots in slavery, as white people were still associating African Americans with their previous condition of slaves, although slavery had been disbanded for a century. Furthermore, blacks were represented as second class citizens because the white Americans had interests in keeping them poor, uneducated and with no or limited rights or liberties, as otherwise they would have to share their resources with them. Good education, employment or housing and the access to resources that would guarantee a better life, these were the advantages that white people have and were kept away from the blacks by treating them as unequal to whites. Because they did not want to share these advantages, white supremacists created the second class citizens’ representation for the blacks, maintaining it through social, political and economic segregationist strategies.
Despite the representation that the majority white Americans were creating for blacks in sixties, Malcolm X, through his human rights movement, proposed to change this representation through his program. Primarily, his movement was called human rights and not civil rights, although they shared common principles of recognizing the rights and liberties of the black people. However, Malcolm X’s solution for attaining the goals for a better life for black people were to be obtained through human rights actions, because the civil rights were specific to United States, considered the enemy of the black community. His program referred to creating a new representation for black Americans, wherein they would liberate themselves from whites’ control, by governing their own communities, developing businesses that would further create good jobs for blacks and would allow proper housing. This new order ruled out the involvement of white Americans and the principle of integration, which Malcolm X bantered, using irony as a rhetorical device. This ideological program was based on the fact that the black community was exploited by whites who controlled their stores and their entire economy, keeping them in poor living conditions. It was also based on the fact that black people were racially discriminated up to the point that their human rights were heavily abused: “They don’t hang you because I’m a Baptist; they hang you because you’re black.” (Malcolm X 12:51). Self – irony is another rhetorical element that Malcolm X uses in his speech to properly communicate his vision to his audience.
As the above self - irony indicates, African Americans are represented in this speech as people who are abused, as victims of a racist and segregationist country and a hypocritical political system, which was built on the principles of liberty for all. The first settlers in America required independence from England through their program “no taxation without representation”, but are not accepting liberty, independence and equality rights for blacks based on the same principles (Malcolm X “The Ballot or the Bullet”). “The Ballot or the Bullet” campaign followed the same principles as “no taxation without representation”, threatening with fight against the white supremacist if the right to vote of black Americans would not be exercised throughout the territory of United States.
For the black Americans the sixties was the time when they changed their social, economic and political representation, challenging the status quo that proclaimed them second class citizens, marginalized people with no rights meant to live in poverty and humility. “The Ballot or the Bullet” proves Malcolm X’s eloquence and the fact that in addition to being a vivid human rights activist, he was also an excellent public speaker. In this speech, he integrated multiple rhetoric devices, such as intonation, diction, dramatic pauses, metaphors, alliteration, irony or self – irony, for transmitting an accurate and passionate message to his audience, in a credible manner. The work of Malcolm X and other activists of the African Americans’ rights, such as Martin Luther King Jr. led to the gradual public recognizance of the blacks’ right to vote, to have proper salaries, study in decent schools, live in adequate housing, and be respected as equal individuals.
Malcolm X. The Ballot or the Bullet. [Online] 6 December 2012. Available from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oVW3HfzXkg. 14 April 2016. Web.