Understanding the enduring legacy of Louise Little, the powerhouse Black activist who shaped Malcolm X

Louise lived for twenty-six more years after losing her son Malcolm. This was the same amount of time she’d been kept from her children during her institutionalization at the Kalamazoo State Hospital. The little girl from Grenada, the one who dreamed of traveling the globe, the one who could not wait for her chance to join the fight for Black lives, lived an incredible and long life filled with both sorrow and jubilation, loss and triumph.

She lived through all of the events of the early 1900s. She then witnessed the formation of the Black Panther Party – a revolutionary organisation with ideological links to both Garveyism and the Nation of Islam. Louise also lived to see the end of the Vietnam War, the election and reelection of President Ronald Reagan, the first launch of the space shuttle, and the United States invasion of her homeland.

She would likely have heard of a Black director by the name of Spike Lee, who released his first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, in 1986. Just a year after her passing, this same director would create a masterpiece tribute to her own son. She might have watched one of the very first episodes of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and maybe she heard of the passing of the novelist and playwright James Baldwin. Some of these specifics cannot be confirmed, but they represent the incredible range of events Louise lived through and alongside in her ninety-seven years of life.

Louise, with her almost-century on this earth, would leave an indelible print on the lives of millions, most of whom are still unaware of her name. She was a feminist grassroots community activist whose works present a model for others to follow. Her activism helped to push forward the causes of Black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and the African diaspora as a whole. As the educated and radical woman she was, she became a crucial member of the Marcus Garvey movement. She and her husband brought attention to an area of the United States that has often been forgotten in tellings of Black revolutionary history. 

While much of history has focused on the South and the East Coast, Erik Mc- Duffie, professor of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explains that Louise ’s commitment to the Midwest serves as a reminder of its, and its people’s, importance. Out of the claimed two million members of the Garvey movement, Louise was reported as being one of Garvey’s closest confidantes. Her eldest son, Wilfred, recalled Louise writing letters on Garvey’s behalf and even helping to shelter him in their home when he was being pursued by the FBI. This act was a risky one, but Louise did not let fear control her. Wilfred also remembered his mother receiving letters from other leaders of the movement filled with gratitude for her contributions to their shared cause.

For those who worked closely with her, she provided an example of someone who was unafraid to stand up against traditional notions of gender and race. Like other prominent women in the Garvey movement, she challenged patriarchy and racism by taking control of her narrative and involving herself in the heart of the organisation. Although women were not allowed to be presidents of Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA) chapters, Louise used her position as the Omaha UNIA secretary to influence the decisions and directions of the branch.

“Out of the claimed two million members of the [Marcus] Garvey movement, Louise was reported as being one of Garvey’s closest confidantes”

Louise was aware of the need to be in control of her own narrative, despite others relentlessly trying to take this agency away. This self-assurance was made clear in the way she explained and presented herself to her children and, later, her grandchildren. The simple fact that her kids knew of her encounter with members of the Black Legion, whether they were alive to witness the moment or not, displays Louise ’s desire for her children to truly know who she was as a radical activist. Every time she taught them to rely on their own skills, to be aware of the happenings of the world for themselves, to question any teachings that taught them they were inferior, she was practicing her activism.

Her children witnessed her strength every time she stood up to her husband; she was unafraid of his intensity and would not be silenced in her own home. They bore witness to her resistance when welfare workers began showing up and challenging her ability to raise her children. She fully believed that her institutionalisation in Kalamazoo was a form of incarceration and state punishment for her desire to live as a free, single, immigrant Black woman.

Anna Malaika Tubbs is a Cambridge Ph.D. candidate in Sociology and a Bill and Melinda Gates Cambridge Scholar. Follow her on Twitter @annas_tea.

This edited extract was taken from Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, published by Harper Collins. Order now.