Overlooked No More: Louise Little, Activist and Mother of Malcolm X

The young couple arrived in Omaha — their first assigned post as Garvey missionaries — in the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, when dozens of American cities were convulsed by racial violence. The thousands-strong lynch mobs there were particularly notorious.

The Littles set to work founding a Garvey chapter, as they would in cities in Wisconsin and Michigan over the next decade. Earl recruited at home and on the road. Louise was chapter secretary and a reporter for Garvey’s newspaper, The Negro World. According to “The Life of Louise Norton” (2021), by Jessica Russell (with contributions by Little family members), the family sheltered Garvey when he was in flight from federal agents on charges of mail fraud, and Louise wrote material for a national campaign urging President Calvin Coolidge to grant Garvey clemency.

Wherever they settled their growing family, the Littles were a provocation. Not only did they spread Garvey’s bold rhetoric, but their own literacy and economic autonomy were also an affront. When one of their homes in a white area burned down, Earl, a skilled carpenter, quickly rebuilt it. Louise worked as a seamstress and sold her own designs. Most of the family’s livelihood came from farming and hunting — on land they owned, a rarity in sharecropping America. Their family car was another anomaly — as was Louise’s driving it. They were continually threatened by white neighbors and officials, and many Black residents were afraid to be seen with them.

As the Little children began to attend school, Louise took on a new role: a prescient form of the activist parent. She worked to counter what the children were taught, correcting the routine slander about Black people to inoculate her children against self-hatred. If she heard of a particularly egregious remark or lesson, she would march into the school and demand respect. She took the children to various churches and temples to sample religious ideas and had them sing the alphabet in French, read aloud from The Negro World and another newspaper, The West Indian, and look up every new word in the family dictionary. By the seventh grade, Malcolm had top grades and was class president.

Family life, solid if not secure, was shattered in 1931, when Earl died after he was run over by a streetcar in Lansing, Mich. The idea that the incident was not an accident — that Earl could have been murdered — became a touchstone of Malcolm’s life story, though it has largely been refuted.

Even with help from her oldest children, Louise struggled to keep the family fed in the depths of the Great Depression and in the throes of escalating harassment.

First, an insurance company insisted that Earl had committed suicide and refused to pay out on the $10,000 policy that the Littles had so carefully funded. When Louise reluctantly accepted federal relief money, violating her values, she became subject to new levels of scrutiny. Local officials routinely withheld her relief checks while pushing her to sell her land.

Source link

Leave a Reply