Malcolm X: Formative Years in Michigan
It is so important for you and me to spend time today learning something about the past so that we can better understand the present, analyze it and then do something about it.
Malcolm X (1925-1965) lived in the Lansing vicinity from 1928-1940. His time in Michigan tells a very important part of history, full of struggle and defiance in a racist society.
Born May 19, 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm Little (Malcolm X’s birth name) was the fourth child of Earl and Louise Little. Earl Little, a self-proclaimed Baptist minister, ardently spoke out about civil rights. Like many African Americans at the time, the Littles followed the teachings of Marcus Garvey. “Garveyism,” as the movement was known, taught that American society would never accept African Americans as equals. Therefore, African Americans should establish their own country in Africa. Although the movement had hundreds of chapters worldwide, followers faced opposition and often violent retaliation from the established white society. While Mrs. Little was pregnant with Malcolm, the local Omaha Ku Klux Klan threatened the family. The Klan stormed their home because Earl was “spreading trouble among the good Negroes.”
Early Experiences in Lansing
Because of this attack, Earl Little relocated his family first to Milwaukee (1926), and then to Lansing (1928). In Lansing, he bought a house in the white neighborhood of Westmont, located near the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Waverly Road. To earn money, he preached at the local Baptist churches and continued recruiting followers to the Garvey movement.
However, as in Omaha, Earl Little’s reputation again spread as being an “uppity Negro.” He disturbed the status quo by refusing to move to the “black” area of town. The land company that owned the Westmont subdivision took Earl Little to court in 1929. The company argued that because the land contract stated only Caucasians could live there, Earl was in breach of contract. The court ruled that Earl Little could own property in the subdivision, but could not have a home there. Therefore, he and his family had to vacate the home. Before the eviction took place, the Little’s house burned down. The State Journal reported that the police helt Earl Little on arson charges which were later dropped. The family always held the Black Legion, a white supremacist group with connections to the KKK, responsible for the burning.
From there, Earl Little moved his family to 401 Charles St. near the border of East Lansing. The family stayed there from 1929 to 1930. However, they decided that the racially segregated situation in East Lansing was too stressful. So, in late 1930, Earl Little built a house two miles out of town on Logan Street (now MLK Avenue). Malcolm Little enrolled at Pleasant Grove Elementary in January of 1931 after moving into the home.
On September 28, 1931 a streetcar hit Earl Little, killing him. The authorities ruled it a suicide, but Malcolm and his family held the Black Legion responsible. Because Earl Little’s death certificate declared suicide, Louise Little could not collect insurance money. The family fell into financial hardship. Malcolm’s two oldest siblings quit school and, along with their mother, took odd jobs to support the family. Despite the family’s best efforts, they eventually went on welfare. Even with odd jobs and a welfare check, Louise Little struggled to feed and clothe her eight children.
By 1934, Malcolm began to get into trouble both at school and at home. He regularly went downtown stole treats, mostly apples and trinkets. As he was caught for more of these offenses, the welfare board continually brought him up as an example of Louise Little’s parental incompetence. The stress of their impoverished situation eventually began wearing on Malcolm’s mother. In early 1939, Louise Little was declared legally insane and formally committed to the Kalamazoo State Hospital. The eldest two siblings were able to stay in the family home, but the younger children were divided between neighbors and friends.
Malcolm moved in with the Gohannas family, who also lived in Lansing on Williams Street (where the Grand River General Motors plant now stands). He enjoyed his time there, but missed living with his brothers and sisters. Since they were all in Lansing, they visited each other often. However, the strain of his family’s situation still haunted Malcolm. He misbehaved in school one too many times and was expelled at the age of thirteen from West Junior High School.
After this offense, the state intervened and sent Malcolm to a detention home in nearby Mason, Michigan. Originally, authorities sent Malcolm to reform school. But when the day come for his departure, the family in charge of the detention home refused to make him leave. They accepted Malcolm into their family, and in 1939, they decided to enroll him at Mason High School.
Malcolm excelled in school and was elected president of his seventh grade class. He played basketball on the school team and traveled to other predominantly white towns, such as Howell and Charlotte. Although he faced racist attitudes in these areas, Malcolm stated that it did not bother him much. He was accepted in Mason, albeit as a black person and not on equal terms with whites.
In the last semester of his eighth grade year, Malcolm experienced what he called the first major turning point of his life. As he recalled in his autobiography, an English teacher whom he always admired asked Malcolm what he wanted to be when he grew up. When Malcolm responded, “a lawyer,” the teacher took him aside and told him to “be realistic.” As a “Negro,” that was an unattainable dream. He suggested carpentry for Malcolm instead, since he did well in woodshop and was well liked by his white peers. After that experience, Malcolm became much more withdrawn in school. He finished eighth grade, but dropped out that year. He then moved to Boston with his half-sister and only came back to the mid-Michigan area to visit his family and friends.
Malcolm X went on to become an outspoken leader of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. His ardent message of “by any means necessary” resonated with much of the African American community and made him into one of the most revered and controversial Civil Rights leaders of our time.
This article is based upon Malcolm X’s recollections as told in The Autobiography of Malcolm X and originally published on SeekingMichigan.org on February 14, 2012.
You can read more about Malcolm X’s time in Lansing at the Malcolm’s Lansing Project website.