Malcolmology 101, #15: Bayard Rustin Debate
Tue, 2011/03/08 - 3:31pm — Editor
Despite some trepidation from Elijah Muhammad, who viewed forays into the public intellectual sphere with skepticism, Malcolm X undertook a series of college debates in the early 1960s with significant figures in the Civil Rights Movement. One of these was a debate with a longtime civil rights activist Bayard Rustin at the prominent black college, Howard University, in Washington D.C. The events leading up to the debate, however, illustrated the divisive position that Malcolm and the NOI held within the black community. After inviting him to speak as part of Negro History Week in February 1961 by the campus chapter of the NAACP, the group could not secure approval from the Student Activities Office. The students then rescheduled at New Bethel Baptist Church, but the church later balked, saying that the expected audience was too large for the venue.
How the lecture came to fruition in October as a debate with Bayard Rustin is still mysterious. It is possible that E. Franklin Frazier, who had been associated with the University since the mid-1930s, intervened by convincing the school that an integrationist voice like Rustin’s be present to counterbalance Malcolm X’s separatism. According to Rustin, though, Malcolm had broached the subject of the canceled lecture and Rustin replied that he could convince Howard if he agreed to his terms: “You’ll present your view, and I’ll present a view which says that you’re a fraud. You have no political, no social, no economic program for dealing with the black community and its problem.” Malcolm allegedly took the challenge and Rustin wrote to the Howard University president, who supported the debate. Rustin claimed that the University was reluctant to have Malcolm alone because it could jeopardize its federal funding.
The debate took place before a capacity crowd of fifteen hundred with five hundred left outside of Cramden Auditorium. Eager to avenge a debate against Rustin the year before on WBAI radio in which he had been clearly outwitted, Malcolm rallied the crowd by speaking not as “a Republican, Democrat, Christian or Jew, and certainly not as an American” but as a “BLACK MAN!” Although Rustin pressed against the NOI’s weak point, the unlikelihood of a separate state, Malcolm had captured the support of the more radical student audience and left the old-guard of Howard University teetering. A professor left the auditorium saying: “Howard will never be the same. I feel a reluctance to face my class tomorrow.” Malcolm X and Rustin continued to cross paths over the next several years in debates and at the 1963 March on Washington - Rustin as a chief architect and Malcolm as an observer and critic.
Citation: “1500 Hear Integration - Non-Segregation Debate,” Chicago Defender, November 11, 1961.