Malcolm X challenges Black America to vote their interest in Detroit speech ⋆

On April 12, 1964, Malcolm X delivered his “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech at King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit. 

“A ballot is like a bullet,” he said, only a few weeks after leaving the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist and political and religious organization founded in Detroit in 1930. “You don’t throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket.”

The Black human rights leader argued that African Americans are becoming “politically mature” and could be an influential voting bloc. It came at a time when American political leaders and civil rights activists were debating whether the federal government should aggressively protect the right to vote for African Americans and other minorities, especially in the South. African Americans during the 1950s and ‘60s were routinely denied the right to vote in several southern states. 

Malcolm X in Detroit in 1962. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Malcolm X’s Detroit appearance came before the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act as well as race-related civil disturbances in the Harlem area of New York City in 1964, the Watts area of Los Angeles in 1965, Detroit in 1967 and Newark, N.J., in 1967. 

The year before, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was invited by Detroit Black activists to lead a civil rights rally

The 1964 event was sponsored by the Detroit community organization founded by Milton Henry, a lawyer and activist from Pontiac, called Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL). 

“The Negro is awake,” Malcolm X said. “The white man must realize this. I am not trying to set the spark. I am only giving a warning.” 

Born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Neb., in 1925, he was the son of James Earl Little, a Baptist minister who advocated the Black nationalist ideals of Marcus Garvey.

After threats from the Ku Klux Klan, the Little family moved to Lansing. James Earl Little was murdered by the white supremacist Black Legion, according to Malcolm, who was taken from his family by welfare caseworkers. Malcolm would later drop out of school and move to Boston, where he became increasingly involved in criminal activities.

After a burglary conviction, Malcolm was sent to prison in 1946. It was there he encountered the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, a former Hamtramck resident and leader of the Nation of Islam.

Detroit, one of the largest cities in America, was about 40% Black at the time of Malcolm X’s speech. However, the city’s mayor was white. The nine-member Common Council, Detroit’s legislative body, was all white at the time. 

African Americans in 1964 helped to elect Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, to a full term as president in November 1964. Detroit voters also elected John Conyers Jr. and reelected Charles Diggs, who were both African American, to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

King Solomon Baptist Church in Detroit. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Malcolm X, who had also lived in Detroit and Inkster, was fatally shot in 1965 by rival Black Muslims while addressing Organization of Afro-American Unity members at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.

The Inkster home where Malcolm X once lived during 1952 and 1953 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2022. 

In 1991, a public school in Detroit was named in Malcolm X’s honor. In Lansing, a section of Main Street was renamed for him and there is a historical marker for his former home on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

The Detroit church where Malcolm X spoke at, King Solomon Baptist Church, was granted $500,000 in 2019 to help the church to provide roof replacement for the storied site located at 6100 14th Street on the city’s westside. The Michigan State Housing Development Authority was directed to manage the grant.



authored by Ken Coleman
First published at

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