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

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

For more than 50 years, the few Americans who knew the name Louise Little had one, maybe two, images of her.

In the first, on a dark night in 1925, a young woman trembles on a porch in Omaha, Neb., three children at her skirts, the future Malcolm X in her belly, while Klansmen circle the house shattering windows.

In the second image, 14 years later, the same woman, now a widowed, careworn mother of eight, is shuffled into a sheriff’s car and driven off to a mental asylum, her children left to the mercy of the state authorities.

The first story opens “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965), and it became ubiquitous in the many books and films about his life that followed. The second consigned Little to obscurity: She disappeared behind the tall brick walls of the asylum, where she remained for 25 years.

Both stories are keys to the narrative of a boy, born Malcolm Little, who rose from violence and poverty to become a global figure in the struggle for Black rights. But both have played too neatly into the bluntest of tropes about Black women and erased vital truths not only about Malcolm’s life but also the arc of Black history.

Now, as a new generation of biographers reclaim Little’s life, these images of her have been transfigured: Louise Little emerges as a formidable and nuanced protagonist who, like other Black women over the centuries, fought oppression in both public and private spheres. The reframing of her life corrects a tradition that has presented Black women activists as exceptions, and has missed the critical role of Black mothers. Anna Malaika Tubbs says it precisely in the subtitle of her 2021 book, “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.”

The K.K.K. targeted the Little home because Louise and her husband, Earl, were unapologetic activists who pushed a message of revolution in the new Black communities of the unwelcoming Midwest. On that terrifying night on her porch, recalled her eldest son, Wilfred, she drew herself up to her full 5 feet 8 inches and spoke with her characteristic calm until the Klansmen retreated. Her institutionalization trapped her and traumatized her children, but it came only after she had waged an eight-year battle against welfare workers, police and judges — the powers that have epitomized structural racism.

Malcolm X in 1963. His speeches and writing reflected a deep ambivalence about his mother.Credit…Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Helen Louise Langdon was born on the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1894 or 1897. Her birth year is just one of many details that are hard to pin down. Larger questions about her life are also matters of dispute or interpretation in the now growing literature about her. Did a white man named Norton, her biological father, have a relationship with Louise’s mother, the much younger Edith, or did he rape her? How did Louise feel about her fair skin, which complicated her relationships with her husband, with Malcolm and with any community where she lived?

Louise was a baby when Edith died, so she was raised by her grandmother Mary Jane Langdon and her aunt Gertrude. Mary Jane and her husband, Jupiter, who also died when Louise was small, were captured in West Africa when they were young but were freed by the British Navy sometime after 1833, when imperial Britain banned slavery. The Langdons celebrated their African roots and Grenada’s proud legacy of rebellion against occupiers while living a code of self-reliance. They farmed their own land and each plied a trade, Jupiter as a carpenter, Mary Jane as a herbalist and Gertrude as a seamstress.

Louise studied at a local Anglican school, excelled in writing, spoke English, French and Creole and absorbed world history — however slanted a version — from the Royal Reader textbooks given to millions of children across the British Empire.

At about 21, she embarked alone on a journey of more than 3,000 miles, from the port of St. George in Grenada to Montreal, where her uncle had emigrated. He introduced her to the growing Black nationalist movement led by Marcus Garvey. Little was immediately drawn to Garvey’s ethos of self-determination and Pan-African confraternity — as was Earl Little, a Baptist minister and recent immigrant who had escaped the violence of Jim Crow Georgia. The two married after meeting at a Garvey event.

Their marriage proved turbulent. Earl, haunted by what he had suffered in the South, was sometimes calmed, sometimes provoked by the more hopeful, worldly Louise; she, by contrast, had escaped “exposure to America’s more toxic form of racism,” according to “The Dead Are Arising,” a 2020 biography of Malcolm X by Les Payne and his daughter, Tamara Payne.

By most accounts Earl was abusive at times. But the marriage was also a “stable merger of shared striving,” the Paynes wrote, powered by shared passions for their children, for personal and political autonomy and for their work.

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.

Hope appeared briefly in the form of a man courting her. But when she became pregnant, he left town. She was suffering from hunger, overwork and most likely postpartum depression when the authorities used her out-of-wedlock birth — and delinquent behavior by Malcolm — as excuses to attack with fresh vigor. A judge first removed Malcolm from the home, then ordered Little’s other children to be placed in foster care. Soon after, the judge engineered Little’s commitment to an institution.

Malcolm saw his mother twice during her 25 years of institutionalization, the same years he was evolving into a powerful thinker and speaker as a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam. His renown very likely helped get Little released in 1963, after years of petitions by his siblings.

He saw her again at a joyous family reunion. Less than two years later, he was assassinated.

In her last years, Little lived quietly with one of her daughters in the celebrated Black community of Woodland Park, Mich. Her ashes were scattered there after her death, on Dec. 18, 1989. She was believed to be 91.

Malcolm’s speeches and writing reflected a deep ambivalence about his mother. In his autobiography, written with Alex Haley and published after Malcolm’s death, he sounded contrite in allowing that his behavior had accelerated Louise’s decline. But he also seemed to justify Earl’s abuse of Louise because she had showed off her superior education, and he sought to erase any hint that his educated mother had educated him.

For years the autobiography set the tone for any view of Little. But beginning in 2003, letters that Malcolm wrote to family members have surfaced to present a different picture. The scholar Garrett Felber, who has had access to the letters, referred to one that Malcolm wrote to his brother Philbert in 1949. Their mother had suffered at the hands of the state, Malcolm wrote, because the authorities knew that “she was not ‘deadening our minds.’”

He added, “My accomplishments are ours, and yours are mine, but all of our achievements are Mom’s, for she was a most Faithful Servant of the Truth years ago. I praise Allah for her.”