Activist's mom 'stood her ground'

Thu, 04/07/2016 - 7:00am | Julie Wurth

CHAMPAIGN The noted activist Malcolm X wrote one of the most influential autobiographies of the late
20th century, but little is widely known about the woman who shaped his early life: his mother, Louise Little.

She was a strong, well-educated woman and a Pan-African activist in her own right, a native of Grenada who
spoke several languages and overcame 24 years of institutionalization in a mental hospital, two of her relatives said Wednesday.

"So much of her life is erased from history," said her granddaughter, Deborah Jones of Grand Rapids, Mich., a niece of Malcolm X, who spoke at the University of Illinois Department of African-American Studies annual Malcolm X lecture Wednesday. Jones was joined by Terence Wilson of Grenada, a third cousin of Malcolm X; the two met for the first time this week at the UI.

Jones said her family is trying to put together a history about Ms. Little, a project started by her brother before he died a year and a half ago.


Terence Wilson, left, of Grenada and Deborah Jones of Grand Rapids, Mich., spoke at the University of Illinois on Wednesday for the 2016 Malcolm X lecture. Wilson is a third cousin of Malcolm X, and Jones is his niece. They talked about the impact of Louise Little, the mother of Malcolm X who was from Grenada and an activist herself.


"The history of Grandma Little is so important to black women," she said.

"The Autobiography of Malcolm X" opens with a terrifying story about his mother standing up to a group of armed Ku Klux Klansman who galloped up to their house in Omaha, Neb., one night. They were looking for his father, the Rev. Earl Little, a Baptist minister and organizer for Marcus Garvey's controversial Universal Negro Improvement Association, which advocated black pride and the return to the ancestral African homeland.

Louise Little was pregnant with Malcolm at the time. She stood so the Klansmen could see her condition and told them she was alone with her three small children. They shouted threats that the Littles should leave town because her husband was "spreading trouble." After breaking all the windows in the house, they rode off.

"She didn't apologize, or make excuses for his work," said Erik McDuffie, a history and African-American studies professor a the UI. "She knew pregnant black women had been lynched. She stood her ground."

Ms. Little had been educated at an Anglican school in Grenada and spoke several languages, including English, French and Patois, a type of Creole. She had her children recite the alphabet in French. She had them read and sell the "Negro World" newspaper published by Garvey's organization as well as a newspaper published by T. A. Marryshow, considered the father of Grenadian independence, McDuffie said.

She was born in Grenada in 1894, the granddaughter of Jupiter and Mary Jane Langdon, two natives of Nigeria who took their surnames from plantation owners but were not slaves, Wilson said. Jupiter was a carpenter and farmer. They had six children, including Edith, who was raped by a white man at age 12; Louise Little was born of that pregnancy. In his autobiography, Malcolm X traced his own lighter skin to that "white devil."

Her story is not uncommon among people of African descent, said McDuffie, whose own grandmother was the product of a similar rape.

Ms. Little left Grenada in 1917 to be on her own, never to return. She went to Montreal for two years to live with her uncle, who had heard Garvey speak, and soon Ms. Little joined the movement.

She met her husband and moved to Philadelphia, where they had two children, and then moved to Omaha to support the Universal Negro improvement Association there, McDuffie said. Ms. Little became secretary of the chapter and helped with the newsletter. "Garvey actually visited their home when he was on the run." Her story shows that Malcolm X "emerged from a long, rich history of struggle," he said.

Louise Little's life would grow more difficult. After the family moved to Michigan, Malcolm X's father was killed by a streetcar when he was just 6 ruled an accident but some suspected he was murdered. The insurance company then refused to pay the larger of his life insurance policies, saying it appeared to be a suicide, Jones said.

Louise Little had been a domestic worker but was "blackballed" after that, Jones said. She refused to go on welfare for months but gave in after she couldn't find work. Then she had a brief affair with a man who left her pregnant with her eighth child, and suffered a nervous breakdown.

Jones' mother came home one day to find Ms. Little "agitated and fidgeting." Welfare workers told her they were taking her to get food and clothes for the kids and would bring her back home.

"They took her and she never came back," Jones said.

Ms. Little was certified as "insane" and committed to a Michigan psychiatric hospital, where she would stay until 1963 when her grown children arranged for her release, Jones said.

The two oldest children dropped out of school to take care of their siblings for more than a year, but eventually they were farmed out to five different foster homes.

Jones was 10 when she learned the story. When she went to see her grandmother for the first time, she "instantly felt this warmth from her, even though she didn't speak a lot."

Louise Little lived for almost 30 years after her release. She was resilient, determined and proud, Jones and Wilson said.

"When she stood up, she rose up. The institution did not take that away from her. She instilled that in her children," Jones said.