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Malcolm X Warns, “It Shall Be The Ballot or The Bullet”

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The 1960s were a time of battle for change. Frustrated and fed up with the oppression with which they were forced to live, influential people such as Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. started a whirlwind known as the Civil Rights Movement. On Easter Sunday, March 29, 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech warning of “the ballot or the bullet” (3) from the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York. Extending his position to black people living in America, Malcolm X used repetition of words, epistrophe, anaphora, and antithesis to convey his message in a forceful and fascinating way.

Malcolm X spoke to black nationalists as a plea for action against their white oppressors. He made the point that African-Americans were treated as second class citizens: they were denied the constitutional rights that they deserved. Malcolm X also spoke about the “back pay” (2) that white Americans owed them for the slave labor they forced upon the ancestors of the African-Americans. Malcolm X made a call for freedom.

Malcolm X’s diction added emphasis to his speech. He used repetition of words frequently throughout his speech. Near the beginning of his speech, Malcolm X said:

The first step for those of us who believe in the philosophy of Black Nationalism is to realize that the problem begins right here. The first problem is right here. We have to elevate our thinking right here first–not just the thinking of a handful, that won’t do it. But the thinking of 22 million black people in this country must be elevated. (1)

This statement used repetition of the words “first” and “thinking.” It also utilized epistrophe with the phrase “right here.” The whole quote can be summed up using the words Malcolm X repeated. His main idea was that African-Americans first had to change their thinking right here. Malcolm X used repetition of words and phrases to highlight the idea expressed in the quote.

Two paragraphs later, Malcolm X repeated the word “gospel” throughout an entire paragraph.

When you have a philosophy or a gospel–I don’t care whether it’s a religious gospel, a political gospel, an economic gospel or a social gospel–if it’s not going to do something for you and me right here and right now–to hell with that gospel! In the past, most of the religious gospels that you and I have heard have benefited only those who preach it. Most of the political gospels that you and I have heard have benefited only the politicians. The social gospels have benefited only the sociologists. (1)

Malcolm X was trying to convey the idea that if the gospel doesn’t work, do not accept it-create your own. The African-American people cannot just accept the fact that they are viewed as being subordinate. If they want change, they are going to have to demand that the gospel be changed to include equality for their race.

Malcolm X used repetition of words and phrases as a flag that is raised when he is making a principal point.

Anaphora is another way that Malcolm X emphasized the major points of his speech.

It is nationalism that is bringing freedom to oppressed people all over the world. It was nationalism that brought freedom to the Algerians. It was nationalism that brought freedom to the Nigerians and to the Ghanaians. It was nationalism that brought freedom to the people of Uganda and Tanganyika and Sudan and Somaliland. It was nationalism that has brought about the freedom of every oppressed people. (2)

Malcolm X argued that nationalism was the way for African-Americans to get what they wanted-and he used this paragraph to do so. Those who attended almost certainly left the Audubon Ballroom with the words “it was nationalism” rolling over and over in their heads. To further emphasize his idea of nationalism being the solution to oppression, Malcolm X used anaphora again later in the same paragraph. “And they have seen that the Africans did not get it by sitting in. They did not get it by waiting in. They did not get it by singing, “We Shall Overcome;” they got it through nationalism” (2). How did they get it? “It was nationalism…”

One final major instance of anaphora that Malcolm X used underlines the needs Malcolm X felt had to be met in order to satisfy the goals he was trying to situate in the minds of African-American people. He wanted to educate the people in how to win their battle. “Let’s join in-if this is what the Negro wants, let’s join him. Let’s show him how to struggle. Let’s show him how to fight. Let’s show him how to bring a real revolution. Let’s make him stop jiving!” (2). Let’s show him.

The anaphora that Malcolm X utilized is reminiscent of other great speakers, such as John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Martin Luther King, Jr. He used the tool the lay emphasis on his important arguments. In addition to adding emphasis, the anaphora Malcolm X employed effectively captured the audience’s attention by making the speech pleasant to listen to.

Malcolm X also used antithesis to stress his ideas by contrasting opposites. The first example of antithesis is found in the second paragraph. “When we say so-called Negro that’s pointing out what we aren’t, but it isn’t telling us what we are” (1). Malcolm X is trying to make the point that the word “Negro” has a negative connotation and that African-Americans should not refer to themselves as Negroes (or allow anyone else to refer to them as that, for that matter). He is stating that they are not “Negroes.” Rather, they “are Africans, and [they] happen to be in America” (1). The words “Negro” makes no reference to where African-Americans come from or who they are, but only serves to point out the fact that they are not “Americans” in the sense that a racist would interpret the word. Later in that same paragraph, Malcolm X made one of the strongest statements of the speech. “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us” (1). This statement refers to the fact that African-Americans did not choose to come to America. They were kidnapped and brought here against their will. If Malcolm X had simply said, “We did not decide to come here,” his statement would not have been nearly as effective. Antithesis intensifies the force of his speech.

The diction and sentence tools that Malcolm X used helped to create his voice in the speech even on paper. In his or her head, the reader can almost hear Malcolm X dramatically giving the speech. He has a very strong, confident, persuasive voice. A writer or speaker who has control of his language has control of his audience.

The repetition of words, epistrophe, anaphora, and antithesis that Malcolm X implemented in his speech “It shall be the ballot or the bullet” helps to provoke thought in his audience. These tools accentuate the main ideas in his speech and do so in a way that will reach his audience and allow them to remember what he said. The control he has over his words gave him a strong voice when he spoke that Easter Sunday in 1964. The ability to use such tools in order to reach his audience gave Malcolm X the power to become such an influential and successful speaker.

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