Malcolm X vs. Bayard Rustin: Black on Black

“I must confess that it did my heart a world of good to sit back and listen to Mr. X. list the sins of the white man toward the black man in America. He does it well”


I left Community Church some months ago with mixed feelings. The occasion was a so-called debate between Malcolm X. and Bayard Rustin, and the topic was “Separation and Integration.” Being a pacifist, a Negro, and one who has been involved in the racial struggle lately, I expected to be with Mr. Rustin all the way and against Mr. X. completely. My mixed feelings were the result of the discovery that I was applauding more for Malcolm X. than I was for Bayard Rustin.

During the debate — actually it was more a statement of position on both their parts — it seemed to me as though Bayard Rustin were taking the position of the “radical middle.” I know, of course, that this is not the case with Mr. Rustin, but it seemed so as I listened. There is no question in my mind but that he presented the saner attitude, yet the amazing thing was how eloquently Malcolm X. stated the problems which Negroes have confronted for so many years. The biggest difficulty about listening to him — especially for a Negro — is that he wraps the problem up so neatly that one is almost carried on into his faulty conclusions by the wealth of emotions he evokes.

World of Good

I must confess that it did my heart a world of good to sit back and listen to Mr. X. list the sins of the white man toward the black man in America. He does it well. I daresay that if I were not already convinced of the efficacy of looking on humans as humans rather than as black, white, or any of the shades in between, I might have joined the Black Muslims forthwith.

For too many years, black Americans have not been able to look at white Americans as the same kind of humans, for the most part, and have been placed in a situation where they must make the white man feel comfortable. If they don’t — especially in the South — it can be a matter of life and death.

In his short story “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon,” James Baldwin explains this conundrum. He has the narrator of the story, a Negro who “has it made” In Europe, re­turning to Alabama for a while. The narrator admits that he didn’t ”despise them (the white people) any more than everyone else did, only the others never let it show. They knew how to keep white folks happy, and it was easy — you just had to keep them feeling like they were God’s favor to the universe.”

The point at which I depart from Malcolm X. and the Black Muslims is the very point at which I wish they were strongest. They seem to want to set up a black superiority to replace a white superiority. Both are equally bad. Bayard Rustin stated the case as I see it very well when he said that the question which faces the black man is not what he can do to add to their (the whites’) doom, but what can be done to help in their redemption. He went on to substantiate my own thoughts further by saying that “whether white men like it or not, we need to force them into being their best.”

Faces it Squarely

One of the many good things I can say about Mr. Rustin’s pro­cess of thinking is that he re­fuses to equivocate about the problem; he faces it squarely. Few of us are either able or willing to do this. I only wish that more Negroes in the van­guard of the movement for ra­cial equality could do it as well as he does.

I might mention my surprise in discovering — according to Mr. Rustin, and with his opponent’s “amen” — that no other Negro leader was even willing to talk with Mr. X. on the same plat­form. When I asked someone about this, I got the shoddy re­ply that “no one should dignify the Black Muslims by appearing together with them in public.”

Dignify them indeed! I am only glad that I heard this from a white liberal rather than from a Negro — though I strongly sus­pect that many Negroes feel the same way. Well, we had better begin realizing that we surely can’t “un-dignify” the Muslims. Like it or not, their audience is growing larger and their voices are becoming stronger.

One of Malcolm X.’s most salient points against Mr. Rus­tin’s arguments was that he, Malcolm X., is not trying reach the middle-class Negro; the Muslims have already recog­nized that the middle-class Ne­gro, for the most part, is not about to risk too much in the cause of raising the level of the masses of black people who seldom have either a decent place to live or a decent way of earning a living. “We talk on the streets,” Malcolm X. said, “and on the corners because the man in the street is the one who is catching hell.” And perhaps that is who needs to be reached.

After reaching him, though, what do you tell him? This is where I earnestly wish that Mr. Rustin and Mr. X. could see eye to eye.

Let Him Simmer

The Black Muslim position is that since the white man has had so long to do right if he really planned to do so, we might as well accept the fact that he is either unwilling or in­capable of doing so. Therefore, they say, let’s just get away from this devil; let him simmer in his own stew. Messenger Eli­jah Muhammad has said: “Do thank Allah for revealing this evil, deceitful, open enemy, ‘the devil!'” He says that “they, the white race, cannot treat you and me with justice … ” Knowing what I do about how evil some people can be, I am almost will­ing to agree with the Messen­ger. But since some of my best friends are white — and my ton­gue is not in m cheek — I can­not make a blanket statement about the devilishness of white men with all honesty.

If only the black movement which is “recognized” by the white liberals in America could have the verve and sense of dedication of Messenger Muhammad: if only the Black Muslims could have the sense of “un­-apartheid” which most black liberals hare. But perhaps that’s asking too much.

I ought to make it manifest here that I am certainly not going to be placed among those who deride the Black Muslims. While I cannot, on good consci­ence, agree with their accept­ance of separateness, or their “meet violence with violence” doctrine for ameliorating racial problems in America, I do feel they are playing an important role as a catalyst for both black and white who move too slowly. It’s a cinch that if there were enough black liberals who be­lieved strongly enough in their own position — as do the Muslims — we wouldn’t have such a hard row to hoe now.

Biggest Problem

The biggest problem, I guess, is getting enough people to do what they say they believe. It was interesting to hear again Bayard Rustin’s theory of “so­cial dislocation,” and I have heard him explain it many times. But somehow, in the set­ting ot the Community Church, and with Malcom X. in the background, the theory seemed to make more sense to me. Rus­tin’s idea, to put it in his own words, is that “social dislocation (the use of mass action — really mass action — in order to realize social, political, and economic equality) can be accomplished by using the bodies of masses of Negroes in order to uproot the system of segregation … to make segregated institutions impossible to exist.”

Of course, this is not the first time the same sort of idea has been set forth, but my feeling is that Mr. Rustin means precisely what he says. There are few instances in my own mem­ory where “recognized” Negro leaders have said this and have put it into practice (Farmer, Abernathy, Shuttlesworth, and some of the Negro students are exceptions). I don’t mean to dis­parage others — many of them are doing an excellent job in other areas — but “social dislocation” the way Rustin talks about it just hasn’t been tried as much as it should have been.

It is understandable why it hasn’t been tried. My own short sojourn in a Southern jail makes me wonder it I am equal to the task. But if “social dislocation” is what is called for, then I cer­tainly am willing. It will be after I have tried it again for me to discover my capabilities for withstanding the pressures, but I am, nonetheless, willing. As I dream of the day when masses of Negroes will rise to the call, I keep humming to myself an old spiritual we used to sing: “Here am I send me.”

As I think over that night at Community Church, James Baldwin’s “This Morning, This Evening, So Soon” again comes to mind. The narrator, speaking of his sister, says that “all the white people she has ever met needed, in one way or another, to be reassured, consoled, to have their consciences pricked but not blasted” (italics mine).

Much to the surprise of many white liberals that night at Community Church, both Malcom X. and Bayard Rustin not only pricked but blasted their consci­ences. As a matter of fact, many black liberals were surprised to find a certain unpredicted rap­port between Malcom X. and Bayard Rustin. I am glad this “myth of the rift” was exposed.

Somehow the press has had a journalistic orgasm over the dif­ferences of opinion which occur between various factions of the movement for equality among Negoes today. I hope white lib­erals aren’t fooled by this. Sure­ly, there are differences of ap­proach, program, attitudes, and even methods of resolution of the many problems black people in America are facing. But be ye not deceived. The movement will press forward despite dif­ferences.

Needs Allies 

As Bayard Rustin pointed out, “the movement needs white allies.” I agree. However, the movement will not rely on these allies fully — though it will welcome their assistance with open arms — but will have a broad base among Negroes of many philosophical and social disciplines.

The white man, inimical or otherwise, had better cultivate an understanding of this because, willy or nilly, there is going to be change. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 28, 2020

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 28, 2020