Malcolm X and CORE NYC (part 3)

Where's the Beef? (aka the Debates)
Perhaps his most interesting and intense interactions with CORE were the debates that took place between him and various leaders of CORE.

Over the years Malcolm had gained a reputation as a debater for his overwhelming success in trouncing his opponents. The leaders of the major civil rights groups agreed amongst themselves to no longer debate him not only out of fear for his skills but to avoid giving him a platform which could have translated into legitimacy.(22)

Bayard Rustin and James Farmer however disagreed.(23) These became some of Malcolm X's most well known debates. What is even more interesting is that Rustin and Farmer were among the very few to have ever won against him. As contentious as these debates were, both were also among the very few civil rights leaders who attended his funeral.

Rustin and Farmer had been part of their college debate team. While Malcolm had been part of his junior high school debate team, he really came into his own as part of his prison's debating team, admittedly a much tougher and more challenging experience.

Malcolm vs. Rustin
Even though MLK and Malcolm are often discussed as being polar opposites in the story of the civil rights movement, if there was anyone who represents the flip side to Malcolm it would be Bayard Rustin, especially in terms of his emphasis on integration, non-violent direct action and the idea that America could be transformed into a multiracial social democracy.

Rustin is perhaps most well known as the chief organizer for the March on Washington, He was assisted by his right hand people: Norm Hill (national CORE), his wife Velma (New York CORE) and several members of what became East River CORE such as Rachelle Horowitz, Tom Kahn, Penn Kemble, Paul and Sandy Feldman. Malcolm was famously critical of the march, mockingly referring to it as the 'Farce on Washington'.

Rustin had been one of CORE's earliest members and its first field secretary. Even though by 1960 he was only on the board of advisers, he remained actively involved in CORE's national and local demonstrations working closely with local NYC members and chapters.

One of their debates took place in 1960 on WBAI radio in New York City.(24) Malcolm scored in pointing out that passive resistance worked with Gandhi in India because Indians were in their own land and vastly outnumbered the British colonialists. American Blacks in contrast are not in their homeland and are outnumbered here by Whites. He often stuttered and stammered, however, as Rustin took him to school with the tone of a college professor speaking down to an undergraduate. As one scholar has pointed out, Malcolm was 'clearly outwitted' although there is a sense that Malcolm was holding back, perhaps out of respect for the veteran activist.(25)

By the time the two met again at Howard University in October, 1961 Malcolm had turned the situation around. Stokely Carmichael, then a student there, thought he had 'thoroughly crushed all of Bayard Rustin's ideas'.(26) According to Rustin however this was something of a set up in that Rustin was responsible for the debate.

Malcolm originally had not been allowed to lecture at Howard, so Rustin proposed to Howard instead it allow him to debate Malcolm. Howard's reluctance he believed came from its dependency on the U.S. Congress for continued funding and its desire to not risk upsetting Congress by appearing to provide Malcolm with support.

As Rustin explained it, he intentionally played the role of the straight man in that he told Malcolm ahead of time exactly how he would come at him during the debate. The way he figured, the debate would open the door for Malcolm to appear at all of the other Black colleges because they would be less afraid to have him as a speaker.(27)

The two met again for their now classic debate 'Separation or Integration' held at the Community Church in Manhattan on Jan. 23 1962. Robert Gore, an assistant director at CORE's national office, was in the audience. Like Rustin, he was a pacifist who originally came from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. While he believed Rustin had the 'saner' positions, even he had to admit to being swayed by Malcolm's arguments.(28)

Malcolm came off as if he were at one of his outdoor rallies in Harlem while Rustin was trying to keep from being overwhelmed. Under pressure, Rustin seemed forced to give Malcolm his props during the debate in stating that Malcolm had a following among working class Blacks that CORE and other civil rights groups did not.(29) This would be made painfully clear during the 1964 riot in Harlem when Rustin was booed by crowds in the street, responding to his pleas to disperse with chants of, "We want Malcolm X!".(30)

While he may have been successful at getting the attention of the masses, Rustin's point that the NOI had no program for them scored during the debate, reiterating a critique often made by the people in CORE: the NOI talked but did not do.

Malcolm X and the NOI had no realistic, adequate program to change the system, to fight for progressive change, no concrete program to solve the problems of Black people in America. To Rustin, the difference in opinions came down to 'its about changing America for the better' versus 'America is doomed so Blacks should split'.

In referring to the NOI's proposals as being 'Utopian', Rustin equated the idea of a separate Black state with a kind of reverse racism. He pointed to Chinese people who, even though they have owned their own businesses in America for years, are still, like Blacks, not equal citizens. Owning businesses could not be equated with a political program.(31)

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