[May 19th is Malcolm X’s birthday. Below is a portion of an article I wrote for the Washington Post in 1990.]
Robert Little has never before agreed to be interviewed about his older brother.
For one thing, he believes that the news media were “instrumental in distorting the message Malcolm was trying to convey, and typecasting him as some sort of out-of-control revolutionary militant,” says Little, acting administrator of the District of Columbia’s Youth Services Administration.
(United Press International, the day after the assassination, began its report by describing Malcolm X as a “bearded Negro advocate of violence against the whites.”)
With Malcolm X now chic, Little wants to make sure that people “do justice to the message and not spend all this time and energy glorifying the messenger.”
“In the work I do with the young folks in this city,” he says from the high-backed leather chair of his downtown office, “I only believe that if they were exposed to Malcolm’s messages at an earlier age, we wouldn’t see so much self-hate, so much black-on-black violence, such lack of family unity, so much preoccupation with material values rather than intellectual or spiritual values.”
Robert Little, 51, is the youngest of eight brothers and sisters who grew up in and around Lansing, Mich. Malcolm Little had moved East as a teenager, eventually becoming a small-time hustler in Harlem and Boston, as he related in his autobiography. At 20, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison for burglary in Massachusetts.
Robert was in elementary school at the time. Like other members of the family, he would write to Malcolm in prison. He remembers that the first letters he got back “were not a hell of a lot different than mine in terms of grammar and spelling and punctuation.” But suddenly, Little noticed a change.
“It seemed like somebody else was writing his letters. I later learned that he had really entered into a self-study using what was available to him in prison – and there wasn’t an awful lot available.”
Malcolm was inspired to study a dictionary in his cell after being introduced by another of his brothers to the teachings of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, “messenger of Allah.” Muhammad taught that white people were a race of “devils,” and that black America must become economically self-reliant.
Released from prison in 1952, Malcolm Little soon cast off his “slave” surname in favor of “X,” which Muhammad bestowed upon his followers to represent the African name they could never know. Within two years, Malcolm X was appointed minister of the Nation of Islam’s Harlem mosque, and he became a dynamic national spokesman for Elijah Muhammad.
Robert Little says he didn’t get to know Malcolm well until the late ’50s, while attending Michigan State University. He was tempted to quit school and become a Muslim like all five of his older brothers. But Malcolm dissuaded him.
“I was sitting there reading European history when my mind was saying, ‘You need to be more involved in what’s happening in Africa,’ ” Little remembers, holding but never lighting one of his two pipes. “There were no points for being Afrocentric in those days. Blacks in college were being groomed to be white-minded, you know.”
But Malcolm X “explained to me that the struggle is not what organization you belong to, but whether you prepare yourself for the future battles you’re going to fight. And after those conversations, I went back to school with a vengeance. It dawned on me that in order to improve the quality of life for black folks, you’re going to need more than preachers and teachers. You’re going to need social workers and psychologists and engineers and all types of things.”
Little was the first in his family to graduate from college, and in 1963 he earned a master’s degree in social work and criminal justice.
While at Michigan State, Little says, he would frequently attend Malcolm’s lectures whenever he came through. “As he became a public figure, the thing that impressed me most was how different the personal Malcolm was from the public Malcolm,” Little says.
“He was perceived as fiery, militant, hostile. Privately, he was a very thoughtful person, a contemplative person. He loved to tell jokes and be a part of other people telling jokes. And he could joke about himself. I was glad to be in his presence because he was a warm, positive, encouraging person to me.
“I never believed that Malcolm thought he was special. I think he thought he was the average person, with no more or no less capacity or potential,” Little says. “But I think he realized early on that you’ve got to take what you’ve got and develop it.”