State Capitol artist Joshua Risner's 60-inch by 40-inch portrait of Malcolm X, commissioned by Lansing Community College, will go on permanent display at LCC's Gannon Building Thursday.
Until recently, visible signs that Malcolm X spent most of his youth, from 1928 to 1940, in Lansing, could be counted on one hand. Slowly, the seeds of a pilgrimage are being sown.
Thursday, a grandly scaled, formal portrait of the human rights leader will be unveiled at Lansing Community College. (See related story about the artist here.)
There is more to come. Lansing’s Board of Water and Light plans to put a sign on its new REO Town substation that will recognize Malcolm X.
Last year, a plaque appeared at MSU’s Erickson Kiva to mark the speech he gave there in 1963 and a visit by his daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, in 2017.
In 2011, Main Street, a 3-mile stretch of road in the heart of a historically African-American neighborhood in Lansing, was renamed Malcolm X Street.
Gestures like these signify more than a historic figure with a local connection. For Lansing, it means taking a hard look into a dark mirror. Lansing is where young Malcolm’s house was torched, his father was likely murdered by white supremacists, his mother pushed into poverty and mental illness and his family was broken up.
Yet Malcolm returned many times to visit members of his family, and got married to Betty Shabazz in Lansing in 1958.
Malcolm’s daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, said there’s a lot more to learn about Malcolm’s youth and lifelong ties to Lansing.
“He continued to come home to see his family,” Shabazz said. “He returned to Michigan with his bride to be. It is a part of his identity, good and bad, and he embraced it.”
John Aerni-Flessner, a history professor at MSU, has twice taught a course in Malcolm X’s time in the Lansing area. “Over the last decade, Lansing has really started to finally think about what it means that Malcolm was raised here,” he said.
Tributes like the LCC painting hint that Lansing is ready to confront Malcolm in full.
“It’s really, really wonderful that Lansing is owning him,” Ilyasah Shabazz said. “It’s important that we acknowledge history. There’s good and there’s bad. Coming to terms with the challenge, the traumas, that he experienced — addressing them and embracing his whole self — is what allowed him to be compassionate, to be righteous, to be an activist.”
Fires and butterflies
The best way to walk in the footsteps of young Malcolm X in Lansing is to consult an online map compiled by Aerni-Flessner and his students at MSU. (Go to projects.leadr.msu.edu/malcolmxinlansing.)
For a cold reality check, keep the first few chapters of Malcolm X’s autobiography close at hand.
In January 1928, Malcolm’s family bought a farm on Lansing’s northwest side, in the neighborhood of Westmont, near the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Waverly Road. His parents, Earl and Louise Little, were activists in an international movement that taught black self-reliance, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded by Marcus Garvey.
Earl Little was an itinerant preacher and activist who saw Lansing as fertile ground for recruitment, but the white supremacist Black Legion harassed and threatened him from the start. He was evicted from the property because the land contract specified that only white people could live in Westmont, and worse things were in store. On Nov. 7, 1929, the Little home was burned to the ground, probably by the Black Legion.
Malcolm called it “the nightmare night in 1929, my earliest vivid memory.”
In December 1929, Little moved his family to a house on Charles Street in Lansing Township bordering East Lansing, where they lived for about a year.
“In those days Negroes weren’t allowed after dark in East Lansing proper,” Malcolm wrote. “East Lansing harassed us so much that we had to move again, this time two miles out of town, into the country.”
In late 1930, Earl Little built a four-room house on Logan Street, near Lansing’s western border. In 1975, a state historical marker was erected at 4705 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., near the site. Malcolm went to kindergarten at Pleasant Grove Elementary School.
As poor as they were, Malcolm wrote in the autobiography that his family was better off than the “town Negroes” because they grew much of their own food.
Malcolm treasured the memory of going with his father to Universal Negro Improvement Association meetings held quietly in private homes around Lansing. In the most lyrical passage of his autobiography, he recalled the garden plot at the south Lansing home that he loved to tend:
“Sometimes when I had everything straight and clean for my things to grow, I would lie down on my back between two rows, and I would gaze up in the blue sky at the clouds and think all kinds of things.”
After Ilyasah Shabazz studied her father’s Lansing years more closely, she came to the conclusion that they formed Malcolm X, not just through a crucible of violence and racism, but also love and support.
“His parents provided the foundation,” Shabazz said. “Two activist parents — his father, a minister; his mother, a recording secretary of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which commanded millions of followers in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Ilyasah Shabazz still treasures his father’s butterfly collection and compared his father’s Lansing life to a “cocoon, the safe haven where where lessons and values came like nourishment each day.”
“His mother planted the seeds for his compassion, his literary life, raising chickens, having a vegetable crop, a butterfly collection — all of these things were a part of his identity,” she said. “He didn’t go to jail and miraculously become Malcolm X.”
The next station on the Malcolm X Lansing pilgrimage is perhaps the ugliest. Earl Little died under gruesome and shadowy circumstances on Sept. 28, 1931. His body was found near the corner of Detroit Street and Michigan Avenue, on Lansing’s far east side, with his head bludgeoned and his body cut to pieces by a streetcar.
Historian Manning Marable, author of a 2011 biography of Malcolm X, wrote that “Earl Little’s possible murder may have served the same purpose that lynchings did in the South — to terrorize local blacks and suppress their acts of resistance.”
The death was ruled a suicide and his mother wasn’t able to collect insurance money. As the Great Depression worsened, the family slid into poverty and began to go “downhill,” in Malcolm X’s words. State agencies placed Malcolm with sympathetic neighbors, the Gohannas family, but Malcolm’s home was all but broken. Louise Little suffered a breakdown and was sent to a state mental hospital in Kalamazoo.
“We children watched our anchor giving way,” Malcolm X wrote. He drew a direct line from his family’s treatment during this period and his later views as a spokesman for the Nation of Islam.
“I strongly believe that if ever a state social agency destroyed a family, it destroyed ours,” he wrote. “Hence I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
In June 1939, Malcolm X graduated or was more likely expelled from school. In the autobiography, he implied that the last straw was putting a tack on a teacher’s chair after the teacher humiliated him in front of the class.
He was sent to a detention home in Mason, where he recalled being treated kindly, but with insufferable condescension. Many nights he caught a ride to the south side of Lansing, hanging out in restaurants and clubs. He transferred to Mason Junior High School in seventh grade.
To his surprise, he was elected class president. Besides his high grades, he attributed the honor to being “unique, like a pink poodle” in an otherwise all-white school.
On the basketball team, he recalled, “we traveled to neighboring towns such as Howell and Charlotte, and wherever I showed my face, the audience ‘niggered’ and ‘cooned’ me to death.”
Malcolm X excelled in academics at Mason High School, but was discouraged from becoming a lawyer because of his color.
He again drew a direct line from his experience in Mason to the doctrines he later championed.
“I was trying so hard, in every way I could, to be white. Which is why I’m spending much of my life today telling the American black man he’s wasting his time trying to integrate. I know from personal experience. I tried hard enough.”
The last straw for Malcolm was a talk with a teacher at Mason High School, where he excelled and became class president. Mr. Ostrowski told him a “nigger” had no business expecting to become a lawyer. (And that was a sympathetic teacher.)
“It was then that I began to change — inside,” Malcolm wrote.
The next stop on the Malcolm X pilgrimage in Lansing is the Greyhound station on Washington Avenue, where he boarded a bus in Lansing and moved to Boston to live with his half sister, Ella.
When he got to Boston, he recalled, “I looked like Li’l Abner. Mason, Michigan, was written all over me.”
But Malcolm wasn’t done with Lansing. In November 1942, after some high times zoot suiting and hustling in Boston, he came back “to show off his new appearance,” according to Marable. He shocked his family with the hip dance steps, conked hair and overall swagger he acquired in Boston. He worked at Shaw’s Jewelers downtown until moving to New York City in 1943.
In Harlem, Malcolm became known as “Detroit Red,” to distin guish him from “Chicago Red,” a fellow dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, John Sanford — who later became the comedian Redd Foxx. Both had red hair. Malcolm recalled that he chose Detroit because “no one had ever heard of Lansing.”
In January 1945, Malcolm returned to Lansing, unemployed and “probably nursing a drug habit,” according to Marable. He was also fresh from arrest and conviction for stealing a fur coat and pawning it for $5.
He stayed in Lansing until August 1945, working at the Mayfair Ballroom and Coral Gables in East Lansing as a busboy. According to Marable, he worked at a mattress maker (probably Capitol Bedding) and swept the floor at the REO truck factory.
“Do you remember the Reo? It was manufactured in Lansing, and R.E. Olds, the man after whom it was named, also lived in Lansing,” Malcolm wrote “When the war came along, they hired some Negro janitors.”
In his autobiography, Malcolm speculated about what would have happened if he hadn’t left Lansing.
“I might have become one of those state capitol shoeshine boys, or a Lansing Country Club waiter, or gotten one of the other menial jobs which, in those days, among Lansing Negroes, would have become successful — or even become a carpenter,” he wrote. “All praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did.”
The rest of Malcolm’s life is an oft-told saga, from hustling in the streets of Harlem to imprisonment, intense study and rebirth as a member of the Nation of Islam to his pilgrimage to Mecca, his break with the Nation of Islam and subsequent change in philosophy.
But Malcolm’s Lansing life still wasn’t over.
Shabazz feels that the sadness, scorn and anger Malcolm expressed for Lansing is real, but it’s part of a bigger story.
“He continued to come home to see his family,” Shabazz said. “It is a part of his identity, good and bad, and he embraced it.”
On January 14, 1958, Malcolm X and Betty Sanders married in Lansing before a justice of peace. The reception was held at his brother’s house on South Butler Street, near the present-day Hall of Justice.
“Despite the fact that the family was broken up at a young age, they all stayed in touch,” Aerni-Flessner said. “He was really tight with his siblings.”
Aerni-Flessner said that academic scholarship is also starting to catch up with the subject of Malcolm X in Lansing, especially when it comes to Malcolm’s parents and the Garveyite movement.
The narrative that Malcolm X’s years in Lansing and Mason hardened and embittered him “is not wrong,” in Aerni-Flessner’s analysis, “but it’s too simple.”
“The experience with his parents being organizers for an international movement shaped him more than people talk about,” Aerni-Flessner said.
In his last year of life, after his pilgrimage to Mecca and break with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X didn’t fundamentally change — he came full circle, in Aerni-Flessner’s analysis.
“As national spokesperson [of NOI] he was saying what he felt he had to say, but the later years, when he forms his Organization of Afro-American Unity, that’s actually a return to the roots of Lansing, and the Garveyite organizing of his family,” he said.
Ilyasah Shabazz traveled around Michigan, including Lansing, in 2017-18, when her fictionalized account of Malcolm X, “X: A Novel,” was picked for the Michigan Humanities Council’s Great Michigan Read. She spoke in the Erickson Kiva at MSU Oct. 12, 2017 — the same place her father spoke in 1963.
“What I discovered is that Michigan was my father’s home,” Shabazz said. “He loved New York. He loved Harlem. It was his base, where he worked. But when it came to one of the most sacred times of his life, meeting his wife and starting his family, he took his wife to Lansing to get married. He didn’t get married in New York.”
Shabazz said she saw parts of her father in people everywhere she went on the 2017 tour.
“It was so wonderful to see people embracing Malcolm as their own,” Shabazz said. “When I saw a tall, slender man around my father’s age in Lansing, I was like, ‘Wow, if my father didn’t leave, this is who he would have been.’ This was his community.”