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Rhetoric in History

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Rhetorical Analysis: The Ballot or the Bullet
The two great civil rights leaders of the 1960’s, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, held diametrically opposed political philosophies. King was a pacifist, in the tradition of Gandhi before him; Malcolm X was a radical, an advocate of violence. Both, however, shared a common goal—real freedom for African Americans. Malcolm X’s speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” was a direct response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech of a month before.
Malcolm X, once associated with the Black Panthers, and a member of the Black Muslim movement, wrote “The Ballot or the Bullet” not only as a response to Martin Luther King Jr.’s pacifism, but because he was frustrated with white dilly-dallying in reaching a decision on black rights in America. Political debate had reached an impasse, and Malcolm wanted to make it clear that if the Congress couldn’t come to a decision, black Americans would take matters into their own hands. He did not share Martin’s pacifist inclinations, and he promised a violent seizure of civil rights.
An examination of Malcolm X’s speech will reveal that it is one of the most powerful speeches ever written. It is, in every respect, the equal of Martin’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It is eloquent, it is memorable, and it is poetic. Its tone, unlike Martin’s conciliatory speech, is militant. He appeals to the emotions of his young audience, rousing them to anger; and in the same breath, strikes fear into the hearts of his white listeners.
Malcolm uses several methods to rouse his black audience to anger. One of his main methods, echoing Martin’s own, is repetition. Whereas Martin repeated the phrase “I have a dream,” Malcolm repeats the words “I am not . . .” The audience echoes these words to itself. The repetition, like the refrain of a hymn, becomes the catch phrase of...

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