Overlooked No More: Louise Little, activist and mother of Malcolm X

The young couple arrived in Omaha – their first assigned posting as Garvey missionaries – following the Red Summer of 1919, when dozens of American cities were rocked by racial violence. Lynching mobs, thousands strong, were particularly notorious.

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

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 houses in a white area burned down, Earl, a skilled carpenter, quickly rebuilt it. Louise worked as a seamstress and sold her own creations. Most of the family’s livelihood came from farming and hunting—on land they owned, a rarity in American sharecropping. Their family car was another anomaly, as was Louise’s driving. They were continually threatened by white neighbors and officials, and many black residents were afraid to be seen with them.

When the little children started going to school, Louise took on a new role: a premonitory form of the militant parent. She worked to counter what the children learned, correcting routine slander about black people to inoculate her children against self-hatred. If she heard of a particularly egregious remark or lesson, she would walk 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 The Negro World and another newspaper, The West Indian, and look up every new word in the family dictionary. In seventh grade, Malcolm had top grades and was class president.

The solid if not secure family life was shattered in 1931, when Earl died after being hit by a streetcar in Lansing, Michigan. The idea that the incident was no accident – ​​that Earl could have been murdered – has become a touchstone of Malcolm’s Life Story, though it has been widely refuted.

Even with the help of her oldest children, Louise struggled to feed the family in the depths of the Great Depression and in the grip of increasing harassment.

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

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