Bayard Rustin Debate (November, 1960)


Malcolm X: In the past two years, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has become the most talked about black man in America because he is having such miraculous success in getting his program over among the so-called Negro masses. Time magazine last year wrote that he has eliminated from among his followers alcohol, dope addiction, profanity—all of which stems from disrespect of self. He has successfully eliminated stealing and crime among his followers. Time also pointed out that he has eliminated adultery and fornication, and prostitution, making black men respect their women, something that has been characteristically absent among our men. Time also pointed out that Muslims, followers of Elijah Muhammad, have eliminated juvenile delinquency. When you think about it, Time was giving Mr. Muhammad credit for being one of the greatest moral reformers that has appeared among the so-called Negroes yet. A few months later, U.S. News & World Report pointed out that Mr. Muhammad was successful in stressing the importance of economics. The point behind his program, farms to feed our people, factories to manufacture goods for ourselves, businesses to create jobs for ourselves, is to be economically independent rather than sit around waiting for the white man to give us jobs. What the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has been teaching is not what we have been accused of: nationalism. Nationalism is the political approach to the problems that are confronting the so-called Negro in America. The aim of the black nationalist is the same as the aim of the Muslim. We are pointing toward the same goal. But the difference is in method. We say the only solution is the religious approach; this is why we stress the importance of a moral reformation. I would like to stress that Mr. Muhammad is not a politician. He does not believe politics is the solution to the so-called Negro’s problem. It will take God. God will have to have a hand in it, because the problem of the so-called Negro is different from the problems of any other black people anywhere on this earth since the beginning of time. Every condition of the so-called Negro was preordained and prophesied. And we believe that we are living in the fulfillment of that prophecy today. We believe that our history in America, our experiences at the hands of slave masters, is in line with Biblical prophecy. And we believe that Mr. Muhammad’s presence among so- called Negroes here in America is in line with Biblical prophecies.

Host: Does this involve the creation of a separate state in America?

Malcolm X: It involves the creation of a black state for the black man if not in America then somewhere on this earth. If not abroad, then here in America. Primarily it involves acquiring some land that the black man can call his own. If the powers that be don’t want it here, then they should make it possible for us to do it somewhere else.

Host: It does involve politics, then.

Malcolm X: Any religion that does not take into consideration the freedom and the rights of the black man is the wrong religion. But politics as such is not the solution. But the divine solution would have to have that ingredient in it. You can call it politics if you want, but the overall problem of the so-called Negro in America is not a political problem as such, it is an economic problem, a social problem, a mental problem, and a spiritual problem. Only God can solve the whole problem.

Bayard Rustin: I am very happy to be here and I think Malcolm X can clarify some of the questions he has brought up in my mind. I believe the great majority of the Negro people, black people, are not seeking anything from anyone. They are seeking to become full-fledged citizens. Their ancestors have toiled in this country, contributing greatly to it. The United States belongs to no particular people, and in my view the great majority of Negroes and their leaders take integration as their keyword, which means that rightly or wrongly they seek to become an integral part of the United States. We have, I believe, much work yet to do, both politically and through the courts, but I believe we have reached the point where most Negroes, from a sense of dignity and pride, have organized themselves to demand to become an integral part of all the institutions of the U.S. We are doing things by direct action which we feel will further this cause. We believe that justice for all people, including Negroes, can be achieved. This is not a unique position, and while a controversial one it is certainly not as controversial as the one Malcolm X supports. Therefore I would like to ask him this question: The logic of your position is to say to black people in this country: “We have to migrate and set up some state in Africa.” It seems to me that this is where you have to come out.

Malcolm X: Well, Mr. Rustin, let me say this about “full-fledged” or as they say “first-class” citizenship. Most of the so-called Negro leaders have got the Negro masses used to thinking in terms of second-class citizenship, of which there is no such thing. We who follow the Honorable Elijah Muhammad believe that a man is either a citizen or he is not a citizen. He is not a citizen by degree. If the black man in America is not recognized as a first-class citizen, we don’t feel that he is a citizen at all. People come here from Hungary and are integrated into the American way of life overnight, they are not put into any fourth-class or third-class or any kind of class. The only one who is put in this category is the so-called Negro who is forced to beg the white man to accept him. We feel that if 100 years after the so-called Emancipation Proclamation the black man is still not free, then we don’t feel that what Lincoln did set them free in the first place.

Rustin: This is all well and good but you are not answering my question.

Malcolm X: I am answering your question. The black man in America, once he gets his so-called freedom is still 9,000 miles away from that which he can call home. His problem is different from that of others who are striving for freedom. In other countries they are the majority and the oppressor is the minority. But here, the oppressor is the majority. The white man can just let you sit down. He can find someone else to run his factories. So we don’t think the passive approach can work here. And we don’t see that anyone other than the so-called Negro was encouraged to seek freedom this way. The liberals tell the so-called Negro to use the passive approach and turn the other cheek, but they have never told whites who were in bondage to use the passive approach. They don’t tell the whites in Eastern Europe who are under the Russian yoke to be passive in their resistance. They give them guns and make heroes out of them and call them freedom fighters. But if a black man becomes militant in his striving against oppression then immediately he is classified as a fanatic. The white man is posing as the leader of the so-called Free World, and the only way he can be accepted as the leader of the so-called Free World is to be accepted by the majority of the people on this earth, the majority of whom are not white people. And they measure him by the way he treats the non-white people here in America. This integration talk is hypocrisy, meant to impress our brothers in Africa or Asia.

Rustin: Then what you are saying is that you are opposed to integration because it is not meaningful and can’t work. If you believe that integration is not possible, then the logic of your position should be that you are seeking to find a piece of territory and go to it. Either you are advocating the continuation of slavery, since you feel we cannot get integration by the methods that I advocate, which is to say the slow, grinding process of integration, or you are proposing separation.

Malcolm X: We believe integration is hypocrisy. If the government has to pass laws to let us into their education system, if they have to pass laws to get the white man to accept us in better housing in their neighborhoods, that is the equivalent of holding a gun to their head, and that is hypocrisy. If the white man were to accept us, without laws being passed, then we would go for it.

Rustin: Do you think that is going to happen?

Malcolm X: Well, your common sense tells you, sir, that it’s not going to happen.

Rustin: But if you cannot do it through the constitutional method, and you cannot do it through brotherhood, then what do you see as the future of black people here and why should they stay?

Malcolm X: As any intelligent person can see, the white man is not going to share his wealth with his ex- slaves. But God has taught us that the only solution for the ex-slave and the slave master is separation.

Rustin: Then you do believe in separation.

Malcolm X: We absolutely do believe in separation.

Rustin: Well, are you being logical by saying, “Let’s take over a territory, a part of the U.S.” or are you saying, “Let’s go outside”?

Malcolm X: I think both are logical. The land could be anywhere. When the Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that we have to have some land of our own, it means just that, that we have to have some land of our own. Now if the master’s intention is good, since we have been faithful workers, I should say faithful servants, all these years, then it seems he should give us some of these states.

Rustin: All right, now it is clear that you are advocating separation.

Malcolm X: Separation not integration.

Rustin: All right, now that is clear we can put that out of the way and move on to other things. Isn’t there an inconsistency in your economic position? Where are they going to move to? When Moses took his people into the desert, he had a pretty clear idea of where he was going.

Malcolm X: Well, mentioning Moses is just right. The people that Moses was leading were probably the closest parallel to the problems confronting the so-called Negro. Moses’ people were slaves in a land that was not theirs. Moses’ people had a slave mentality, they were worshiping a God that was not their own. The Negro in America is the same way, he worships the white man’s God, and he is following the white man’s religion. They are in the same fix, socially, mentally, politically, spiritually, as the people whom Moses grew up amongst, 4,000 years ago. Now, if you’ll recall, Moses didn’t advocate integration. Moses advocated separation. Nowhere in the Bible will you find that Moses told his people to integrate themselves with Pharaoh. His one doctrine was: let my people go. That meant separate, not seek integration in the house of bondage. It did not mean to seek the acceptance of the slave master. He said: If you follow me, I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey. He never told anyone where that land was. He never told the people where he was taking them, or what they would have to go through. And if you go back to that time you will see that some of them believed in him but many were afraid of the slave master. They didn’t believe they could get along without Pharaoh. They didn’t believe anybody would give them a job if Pharaoh didn’t. They didn’t believe they could have an economic system free of Pharaoh. Remember, Pharaoh himself never opposed Moses. He always got magicians to oppose Moses. And today, the modern slave master gets a lot of so-called Negro politicians to oppose Elijah Muhammad and work a lot of magic to make the so-called Negroes think he is a crazy man, just as Pharaoh had magicians to make the Hebrews think Moses was some kind of crazy man. But now let me say this: we feel the Honorable Elijah Muhammad is a modern Moses! Some people say Adam Clayton Powell is a modern Moses and some say Martin Luther King is a modern Moses, but no one can claim to be a modern Moses until he finds out what the first Moses did. And Moses never advocated integration. He advocated complete separation. And he didn’t advocate passive resistance, he advocated an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. “Love your enemy”: As long as you teach a man that kind of philosophy, he’ll remain a slave.

Rustin: Well, I am a great advocate of nonviolence, but I think all this talk about whether to integrate or not, and getting involved in the economic life of this country might be more interesting to me if I knew where you wanted to lead people. But I don’t know where you want to go. And I don’t think you do, either.

Malcolm X: Yes we do. We can take some land right here, sir.

Rustin: Yes, but if you do not believe in integration, and they don’t love you, do you think they are going to give you ten or twelve states?

Malcolm X: Ah, Mr. Rustin: the predicament that a man is in is what makes him reach certain decisions. America is in the worst predicament of any country in the history of the world.

Rustin: I agree.

Malcolm X: Now what is causing this predicament? The race problem. America’s number one problem is the so-called Negro. What must we do? What must I do about this Negro problem? And whenever America is attacked on the race problem, what can she say?

Rustin: She can say a lot.


Malcolm X: What?


Rustin: I’ll tell you what. I have spent twenty-five years of my life on the race question, and I have been twenty-two times to jail. America can say that until 1954, Negroes could not go to school with whites. Now they can. Negroes could not join trade unions, but now they can. I do not say any of this is perfect, but it is enough for America to be able to answer Russia and China and the rest on the race question and, more important, it is enough to keep the great majority of Negroes feeling that things can improve here. Until you have some place to go to, they are going to want to stay here. Now, I want to stop right here and get something clear. In Muhammad’s mind, this may be a religious matter, but in the minds of his followers the Muslim movement is a psychological and political concept. They do not read the Qur'an, they read the Bible. They are essentially, culturally, Christian, not Muslims. Why therefore do they call themselves Muslims? Because they do not want to use the same religious terminology that their masters used. Most Negroes who were brought to America came from the West coast of Africa, long before the spread of Islam to that part of Africa.

Malcolm X: That is what the white man taught you...after stripping you of your original culture. Now consider the Mali empire, this shows the influence of the Muslim religion in West Africa before the discovery of America.

Rustin: I am not putting down the culture of West Africa, I am just saying that the Islamic influence came later. All over West Africa you will find wonderful sculptures which were the sources for much twentieth century European art, notably Picasso and Cubism. Now these figures could not have been made if the influence of Islam had prevailed, because, as you ought to know, Muslims are not allowed to create figures in their art objects.


Malcolm X: let me quote from the Times last Sunday. It says that Islam is spreading like wildfire in Nigeria and Christianity is only skin-deep.

Host: Does progress involve a greater sense of racial identity?

Rustin: I believe it is very important to have a great sense of racial identity because I believe it is quite impossible for people to struggle creatively if they do not truly believe in themselves. I believe that dignity is first. This for me is doubly important because believing in integration and not being told where we are to go, I can see nothing more logical than staying here and struggling for one’s rights. Also because of moral principles—but leave them aside for the moment—I can see no way for the Negro to struggle except through non-violence and a dedication to a strategic non-violence as a matter of principle. Now therefore if you are going to struggle with non-violence to a certain extent you are going to have a certain affection for the people who are mistreating you. Now affection for the other fellow is not possible without a great sense of dignity of oneself and therefore the dignity of the Negro for me is not something that is an aside. It is an essential of the struggle. The people in Montgomery were able to struggle and get integration on their buses for a simple reason: ten years before they could not have done it because they did not believe in themselves. When they believed in themselves they could be socially affectionate to the opposition while at the same time they could be extremely militant and walking and being prepared to sacrifice, I think this is most important and I would therefore agree with Malcolm X that doing away with the ugliness resulting from poverty and their position in society is very necessary and important. We can certainly agree here. But now let me ask you another question because I want to clarify your position on the Jewish question. Where do you and your group come out on this question? I’ve been given to understand that your position is—particularly in Harlem—that one of the reasons that Negroes are so oppressed is that the Jews are exploiting them and that the Jews are attempting to exploit the Arab world and stir up difficulties in the Middle East. I’d like to know if this is a misunderstanding I have.

Malcolm X: If you have read what the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has written and he has written much, I don’t think you can find an article where he has ever pointed out the Jew as an exploiter of the black man. He speaks of the exploiter. Period. He doesn’t break it down in terms of Frenchmen or an Englishmen or a Jew or a German, he speaks of the exploiter and sometimes the man who is the most guilty of exploitation will think you are pointing the finger at him and put out the propaganda that you’re anti-this or anti-that, we make no distinction between exploitation and exploiter.

Rustin: Now what do you mean that the man who is the most exploited will put out propaganda?

Malcolm X: I say this that when a man puts out propaganda against Muslims usually that man feels that the finger is being pointed at him but.

Rustin: In other words, you feel that many Jews feel that way.

Malcolm X: I don’t know. But I say that you cannot find anything that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad has written or said that at anytime will label the Jew as an exploiter. No sir, but he speaks about the exploitation and oppression and the deception that has been used against the black people in America. Now the man that is guilty, let whoever is guilty wear that shoe. But he has never made that distinction between a Frenchman or a Jew or a German. An exploiter is an exploiter, I don’t care what kind of label you put on him you can’t duck it.