The fate of human civilization rests in the ballot box.
Malcolm X bluntly articulated this to the American public in his "Ballot or the Bullet" speech, in 1964. He warned that the Jim Crow terrorism and voter suppression that African Americans faced during the Civil Rights era will eventually ignite an inextinguishable revolutionary fire. Every person scorched by the political, economic, and social flares of racism will eventually "catch hell" and fight fire with fire.
In describing the solution to a specific political crisis in the United States, Malcolm called attention to a vital ingredient of any just, peaceful, democratic society: voting. He pleaded with his fellow American citizens to take the democratic higher ground to rise above the violent throes of racism. "If we don't do something real soon," Malcolm said, "I think you'll have to agree that we're going to be forced either to use the ballot or the bullet."
In other words, when perpetrators of oppression continue to violently prevent people from participating in the negotiations of political matters as first-class citizens—the ballot, then the political victims will have no choice but to defend their rights using any means necessary—the bullet.
Yes. Malcolm X, the renowned, uncompromising, black nationalist, appealed to voting. It is not possible to overstate the import of his appeal. We should ask: "Why did Malcolm appeal to voting?"
It wasn't because he feared the bullet. Malcolm understood, as I said in a previous post, that "as an instrument for reasonable and compassionate minds, voting is the method by which we find reasonable and compassionate resolutions."
Malcolm implored the citizens of the U.S. to be reasonable and compassionate individuals who choose to settle issues by means of reason founded on human rights. That means, all humans should have the right to participate in the political process. And, any decision on a political matter should not sabotage anyone's basic freedoms and access to the common goods. Common goods are those fundamental resources that all humans need to live a sustainable life. Everyone has an inalienable right to access food, shelter, education, employment, etc. (What common goods are and how they should be attained is one of the big debates in American politics.)
Essentially, Malcolm invoked the powerful responsibility that voters have. As an indispensable life force of a democratic society, they are charged to honor the rights of all human beings.
In this way, Malcolm affirms that voters, as reasonable and compassionate citizens, ought to correct injustices and resolve differences nonviolently. Therefore, voters—those who choose the ballot and all that comes with it—are the caretakers of human societies.
Let's be clear. When I refer to "voters," I am talking about those persons who act in accordance with democratic principles. I do not mean people who enjoy their right to cast a ballot but betray the right of his fellow men and women to do the same. Such a person would be, in the gospel of Malcolm X, a hypocritical, anti-democratic conspirator who chooses the bullet. He compels another person to consider whatever means to attain or defend her right of suffrage.
As voters, we embrace the duty to respect other Americans' natural rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." We foresee that different pathways to happiness will collide at times. We even know that every conflict of interest cannot be resolved by discussing facts only. Many issues reside in the realm of opinion and taste, outside the jurisdiction of objective scrutiny.
But we still say "yes" to the ballot.
Our great expectation for other Americans is that they mean well and have the community's best interest at heart. We know that is not always the case. Some people are selfish, caving in to their personal wants and desires at the expense of other people.
Even still, we accept the task to understand each other's beliefs, needs, and wants as best we can.
Voters know that there are flaws and weaknesses in democracy and its voting process. We know that democracies are vulnerable to demagogues, political leaders who appeal to peoples' emotions, fears and desires to gain support. We also know voters can lapse into a mob mentality, when the majority assume that their might in numbers is evidence that they are right.
Even still, we honor everyone's right to vote.
American voters and our global counterparts realize that the world is going to survive and thrive, ultimately, by means of the ballot. Otherwise, everyone will "catch hell" and choose the bullet.
Genuine voters in the U.S. have learned and accepted important lessons about democracy. While, there is still much more to learn, I am delighted to say many more Americans have said "yes" to the ballot and "no" to the bullet.
The democratic process is not the easiest, but it is the most moral, reasonable, nonviolent, and effective political technology we have. And since voters are the champions of the ballot, they will inherit the Earth.
Sign up to receive updates on future blog posts and Voting Matters events via email. All subscribers before the release of my upcoming book Voting Matters: Don't Sleep on the Polls will receive a 20% discount.