In her poem “For Malcolm X,” Margaret Walker states “[t]he voice has gone” (1) on the death of the late Civil Rights activist and the leader within the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X. Malcolm X used his voice to influence millions of African Americans grasping for a shimmer of hope within the darkness, African Americans who lived lives where every day was a constant struggle for survival. These oppressed people subsisted in fear of the white men walking passed them on the streets, fearing that this may be their last day alive. For these people, Malcolm X was their champion. He gave these victims of continued prejudice a voice. He spoke out against the white men who led this country with the threat of violence. He inspired his people to fight back and take what was rightfully theirs with his dying breath, stating, “It’s got to be the ballot or the bullet” (Malcolm X 5). “The Ballot or the Bullet” by Malcolm X and “For Malcolm X” by Margaret Walker depict the rise of Malcolm X to the height of his greatness and his sudden plummet to martyrdom following his death. Through the power of his voice and the strength of his words, Malcolm X was cast as a harbinger for freedom, until he was gone and his followers were once again lost.
“The Ballot or The Bullet” is Malcolm X’s call to arms, his omen to the white man for what is to come, his call to unite the African American people of the United States to take a stand against oppression. In his speech, Malcolm X states, “That’s why, in 1964, it’s time now for you and me to become more politically mature and realize what the ballot is for; what we’re supposed to get when we cast a ballot; and that if we don’t cast a ballot, it’s going to end up in a situation where we’re going to have to cast a bullet. It’s either a ballot or a bullet” (Malcolm X 7). African Americans listened to him speak and were inspired to take action themselves, based on his words. If white Americans were killing black Americans without repercussions, then why should black Americans be the only ones dying at the hands of racism? To put it in Malcom X’s own words, “[l]et your dying be reciprocal” (9). Under his blunt influence, the Black Panthers, a more violent Civil Rights activist group, was formed. As Walker states, he led his people “Out of the wilderness / Out of the carnage kingdom / Out of the mire” (2-5). Malcolm X led his people out of the fire. He led them to a better way of life, towards their rights and freedom. He inspired them to grow strong. He hardened them against the fear and hate of the nation. His voice taught them to be brave and powerful. Like Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Malcolm X led his black brothers and sisters out of the fear and oppression that had been inherited through generations of racism. However, once he was gone, that power, that bravery, that hardened soul all came crashing down. In “For Malcolm X”, Walker states:
And without his eloquence
We are mute
And rocks and stones break in the soul
The world winds
On its frozen axis
The dizzy oceans churn our pain.
All needed storms abate
Themselves. Moons freeze the rain. (5-12)
As Walker sees it, African Americans lost their champion. They lost their voice. The hardness instilled upon them by Malcolm X, that resolve to no longer be afraid broke. To the African Americans of the country, it felt as if the Earth has frozen over, like all life had been sucked out of the world; however, their pain was visible. Their pain was tumultuous like a churning sea during a storm, tossing them about in thralls of intense emotion. Although their world as they knew it previously was crumbling, the white man continued to move forward with his racism and his hate. When Walker talks of storms abating, she is really saying that the progress they had made, all of the force and tension that Malcolm X had created towards white society, ceased with his death. The fight for the rights of black America had come to a standstill. The storms to come and movements he would have created could never come to light: “Uncle Sam’s hands are dripping with blood, dripping with the blood of [another] black man in this country” (Malcolm X 10). The white man had killed yet another black man, thus delivering him away from the evil and cruelty of this world.
However, Malcolm X, in his death, was transited from his earthly body to a position of martyrdom. His work lived on as his legacy, but he was no longer alive to continue that work. Black Americans had to carry on the progress that he had made, including those who did not believe in him during his life. Walker states:
So piteous there were
The stolid and the dumb
So piteous as not to mourn
So piteous, so many
The stolid and the dumb.
He has gone up, delivered. (13-20)
On the basis of these words, the time had come for all members of Black America rise, to let their voices be heard and take a stand against their oppressors. All mourned the loss of their voice; however, they had to also find their own within this moment of loss. Malcolm X put his life on the line fighting for what he believed in and fighting for his people, which in turn meant that he had been delivered. He was now a martyr for the movement; he was the patron saint of the Civil Rights Movement. As penance for not believing in Malcolm X while he was alive, members of the black community had to now stand with their brothers and sisters. He gave them their voice, he showed them that there was hope, and he showed them that they no longer needed to live in fear of the white man. He began the work and blazed the trail, and now it was time for his followers to rise up. Walker is telling her fellow people that the time has come to fight and win what is rightfully theirs: their freedom.
“The Ballot or the Bullet” by Malcolm X and “For Malcolm X” by Margaret Walker illustrate the need for a martyr in this movement for equality. These pieces show that in order for progress to be made and solidified the members of the movement must be willing to die for their cause. They cannot ignore what is happening around them until they have no choice but to see; they must wholeheartedly throw themselves in front of the firing squad and tell them that they are not afraid. They must prove to the world that their cause is worth dying for. He was able to unite his people even more after his death. Through this conception, by Malcolm X dying for his cause, he ultimately was able to propel the Civil Rights Movement farther into the right direction than he was able to do during his lifetime.
Malcolm X. “The Ballot or the Bullet.” Congress of Racial Equality, 3 April 1964, Cleveland, Ohio, EdChange, http://www.edchange.org/multicultural/speeches/malcolm_x_ballot.html, 23 February 2017
Walker, Margaret. “For Malcolm X.” SOS—Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader, edited by John H. Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, and James Smethhurst, University of Massachusetts Press, 2014, pp. 321.