Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X: A Rhetorical Analysis

In the 1960’s, two great civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, held two opposing political philosophies. Following in the tradition of Gandhi, King did not believe in violence in order to have his thoughts heard; Malcolm X was an advocate for violence and brought out guilt in others so that he could persuade them to understand. However, both shared the common goal of getting real freedom for African Americans. A month after Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Malcolm X clapped back with his speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet.”

Malcolm X not only wrote “The Ballot or the Bullet” in response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief in no violence, but also because he was frustrated with the stand still of not reaching a decision on black rights in America. He believed this was because of the white population, but political debate could only take the cause so far. Once Malcolm realized this for himself, he wanted to bring it to the attention of whites and blacks alike that if the Congress did not or could not come to a decision, black Americans would then take matters into their own hands. They called this group of people the “Black Panthers”, which Malcolm X later became associated with. X promised a violent seizure of civil rights and refused to share Martin Luther King’s pacifist inclinations.

At a glance of Malcolm X’s speech overflows with strength and power, but when examining closely at Malcolm X’s speech it becomes quite obvious that this speech is one of the most powerful speeches ever written. His speech is rather similar in the respects of Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech, only differing in the means to reach the same end. X’s speech gives off the tone of militant, however it is poetic and memorable, just like that of Martin’s. Malcolm X appeals to his audiences emotions (pathos), fueling them with anger, at the same time striking fear into the hearts of the white population.

Malcolm uses plenty of methods to fuel his audience’s anger, one of these methods being repetition, similarly to that of Martin’s. In Martin’s speech he repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” and like this Malcolm repeats the words “I am not…” The audience soaks this into their minds and repeats it constantly, it soons becoming the catchphrase of every black man, woman, and child in the room as they relate to his claims. He also repeats the word “you” to help the audience relate with him. He let’s every individual in the room, every “you” within the sound of his voice, and within the range of his speech as reported in the media, identify with his claim that “I am not an American,” but a victim of “Americanism.” Malcolm’s speech held so much passion that the message went beyond just race. The idea of being hated and despised never escapes anyone, including his white listeners.

Wanting to frighten his white listeners, Malcolm threatens that if the political system (the ballot) will not give blacks their freedom, the civil rebellion (the bullet) will. He brings more fear to his audience by using harsh, racial language. He uses the word “nigger” as a verbal expression of rebellion to stand up to the whites. He repeats words like “Hunkies,” and “Polacks,” and “blue-eyed thing” to inform the white population that the African American community means business, no messing around. Malcolm makes it abundantly clear that African Americans will no longer be shoved into a corner, or scared into silence. No longer will blacks roll over and take whatever the white man gives them. It is either time for a change or it is time for a violent uprising that will end in change. Malcolm understands that these words will raise levels of suspense and hatred within the hearts of his immediate audience, and that they will be reported in the press and carried into the hearts and homes of every white American, so that fear will soak in and intimidate the white community.

By giving a rather harsh and threatening speech, and by showing repetition in his words, similarly to Martin’s, Malcolm shows the skills he portrays as a speaker. Whereas “I have a dream” is the refrain of a hymn, “I am not” is the refrain of a battle song. Everytime “I am not” is repeated in Malcolm’s speech he keeps hitting the idea of an uprising into the heads of his listeners, making the hearts of every white listener beat just a little faster. Concluding with the words, “I see no American dream; I see only an American nightmare,” everyone in the room recognizes the reference to Martin’s speech of a month before. Black Americans have now realized that sitting back will no longer help, it is in the past and now the only solution is an uprising or revolution. Malcolm’s speech both arouses the emotions of the audience but also provides logic. You cannot call yourself a diner (an American) when your plate is empty (denied basic civil rights). Whites rightly viewed his words as a declaration of war, and they knew that the black community had had enough. In Martin’s speech, he took a polite approach that did not consist of multiple tangible threats. A decision had to be made.