Malcolm X on Self-Defense and the Second Amendment

A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined, but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.” — George Washington

The following is from Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech delivered April 3, 1964 in Cleveland, Ohio. He was murdered less than a year later. In the 1960s, Blacks or “Negroes,” the term Malcolm X uses throughout the speech, were not only a minority racial population that did not have full civil rights, but they were severely discriminated against in various parts of the country. There were indiscriminate beatings and even lynchings. Consider what happened to Emmett Till in 1955:

“Till was an African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi at the age of 14 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Till was from Chicago, Illinois, visiting his relatives in the Mississippi Delta region when he spoke to 21-year-old Carolyn Bryant, the married proprietor of a small grocery store. Several nights later, Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam arrived at Till’s great-uncle’s house where they took Till, transported him to a barn, beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River, weighting it with a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later.”

Then there was the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Alabama, black church that killed Denise McNair (11), Addie Mae Collins (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Cynthia Wesley (14). The four girls had been attending Sunday school classes at the church. Twenty-three other people were also hurt by the blast.

It’s against these types of incidents that point a fine edge on the meaning of the Second Amendment for Malcolm X:

“I must say this concerning the great controversy over rifles and shotguns. The only thing that I’ve ever said is that in areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it’s time for Negroes to defend themselves.

Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun. It is constitutionally legal to own a shotgun or a rifle. This doesn’t mean you’re going to get a rifle and form battalions and go out looking for white folks, although you’d be within your rights — I mean, you’d be justified; but that would be illegal and we don’t do anything illegal.

“If the white man doesn’t want the black man buying rifles and shotguns, then let the government do its job.

“That’s all. And don’t let the white man come to you and ask you what you think about what Malcolm says — why, you old Uncle Tom. He would never ask you if he thought you were going to say, ‘Amen!’ No, he is making a Tom out of you. “So, this doesn’t mean forming rifle clubs and going out looking for people, but it is time, in 1964, if you are a man, to let that man know. If he’s not going to do his job in running the government and providing you and me with the protection that our taxes are supposed to be for, since he spends all those billions for his defense budget, he certainly can’t begrudge you and me spending $12 or $15 for a single-shot, or double-action.

“I hope you understand. Don’t go out shooting people, but any time — brothers and sisters, and especially the men in this audience; some of you wearing Congressional Medals of Honor, with shoulders this wide, chests this big, muscles that big — any time you and I sit around and read where they bomb a church and murder in cold blood, not some grownups, but four little girls while they were praying to the same God the white man taught them to pray to, and you and I see the government go down and can’t find who did it.

“Why, this man — he can find [Adolf] Eichmann1 hiding down in Argentina somewhere. Let two or three American soldiers, who are minding somebody else’s business way over in South Vietnam, get killed, and he’ll send battleships, sticking his nose in their business. He wanted to send troops down to Cuba and make them have what he calls free elections — this old cracker who doesn’t have free elections in his own country.”

  1. Eichmann was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust. After World War II, he fled to Argentina where he lived under a false identity until he was captured in 1960 by Mossad operatives in Argentina and taken to Israel to face trial in an Israeli court on 15 criminal charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes. He was found guilty and executed by hanging in 1962. He is the only person to have been executed in Israel on conviction by a civilian court. []