Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Ballot or the Bullet: Black Nationalism, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks

Fifty years ago on April 12, Malcolm X declared that 1964 would be the year of “The Ballot or the Bullet.”   

“As long as you got a sit-down philosophy you'll have a sit-down thought pattern," he said. "And as long as you think that old sit-down thought, you'll be in some kind of sit-down action. They'll have you sitting in everywhere.”

One person sitting in that church was Rosa Parks.

At King Solomon Church, Malcolm X outlined his principles for a philosophy he termed Black Nationalism.

He urged listeners to cast ballots like bullets. He advocated black unity as a means of self-defense. He said that the civil rights movement was the first non-violent revolution in history.

One month after his departure from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X beckoned a Detroit audience to back up protests with electoral power.


Though we historically place Parks in a bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama refusing to be moved, she spent decades of her life in Detroit continuing the movement.

Jeanne Theoharis writes in The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks that as Malcolm X told blacks to fight back, Parks was turning the "self-help" philosophy of Black Nationalism into action.

In addition to working at the Stocking Sewing Company, Parks stayed active in improving her community.

“She’s working a lot of things,” says Theoharis. “She’s embedded in an emerging black power movement. She’s running a black book store, she’s organizing as an early opponent of the war in Vietnam and she’s very tied to organized labor.”

Rev. Cleage invited Malcolm X to the church that night to launch the Freedom Now party’s 1964 campaign. Though Parks did not run on a ticket, she supported the party, attending rallies and reading its newsletter.

Malcolm X had been putting pressure on Congress in his own way. 

Two weeks prior to his speech in Detroit, he had attended the Senate’s hearing on the Civil Rights bill and meeting Dr. King for the only time in his life, just long enough for this photograph to be taken.

Malcolm X warned “if they don't want that non-nonviolent army going down there, tell them to bring the filibuster to a halt.”

Though all the Freedom Now candidates lost their elections, Parks successfully translated the power of the civil rights movement into an electoral victory

That summer, Parks worked on a campaign for a civil rights lawyer named John Conyers, Jr. to represent Michigan’s First Congressional District, which encompasses much of the north Detroit. She even invited Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to stump for Conyers. Conyers became the second black representative Detroit would send to Washington, D.C.

After winning the election, Conyers invited Parks to work in his Detroit office, where working as a secretary and accountant she helped constituents until her retirement in 1988. Conyers is currently the second-longest serving congressman in American history.

The unique twist in Theoharis’s findings is that Parks considered herself a fan of Malcolm X. While Parks disagreed with his “hatred” of whites, she did not “disagree with him altogether” on the effectiveness of non-violence.

Though she believed Dr. King was correct that accepting “brutality with love” was the best way to pursue civil rights, Parks said she could not always bring herself to believe so. She carried a pistol for self-defense.

While Parks campaigned, Malcolm X went on the hajj to Mecca and visited North Africa, which transformed his worldview.

Though Parks and X did not meet on April 12, 1964, they would meet a week before his death at a speech known as the “Last Message.”

Parks describes the meeting in her autobiography, My Story:
I met him the week before he died. He had come to Detroit to speak, and I was sitting in the front row. His home in New York had been firebombed and all his clothes had been damaged by water and smoke, but he came to Detroit anyway because he’d made a commitment. I spoke to him and he autographed the program for me. He had changed his manner of speaking and the way he expressed himself. I had heard him speak before, but now his message was altogether different.