February 2012

Malcolm X and Seventh-day Adventism

In his day, Malcolm X was many things to many people. To some, he was a fearless revolutionary. To others, a ruthless hatemonger. To some, he was a bold prophet denouncing the sins of America. To others, a reckless and dangerous gadfly. To some, he was a charismatic orator who eloquently articulated the injustices visited upon black people at the hands of whites. To others, one who incited terroristic impulses in gullible listeners.

However Malcolm X is perceived, undoubtedly since his assassination in 1965 he has become a universal figure of adoration. This in no small part is due to his Autobiography with Alex Haley, released posthumously the year of his death. Selling tens of millions of copies, it is one of the most-read autobiographies ever. In the early 1990s when I was entering my teenage years Spike Lee released a blockbuster movie on Malcolm X’s life and young people began to wear X apparel, most memorably the ubiquitous X hat. X’s face was featured on posters on the bedroom walls of millions of youth around the world, and he has been endlessly cited in books, classroom lectures, speeches, sermons, radio and television shows, and movies. A Google search for Malcolm X currently yields more than 55 million hits.

Here are the facts of Malcolm X’s brief life:

May 19, 1925: Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska.

November 8, 1929: The family's Lansing, Michigan, home was burned to the ground.

September 28, 1931: Earl Little, Malcolm's father, was found dead on the town's trolley tracks.

January 31, 1939: Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, was diagnosed as mentally ill and sent to the Kalamazoo State Mental Hospital, where she remained for over 25 years.

1939: The state placed the Little children with various foster families.

1941: February: Malcolm X’s half sister Ella Collins gained custody of him and he relocated to Boston.

1946: Malcolm was sentenced to 8-10 years for armed robbery at the Charlestown, Massachusetts, State Prison.

1948-49: X converted to the Nation of Islam while in prison.

1952: X was released from prison on parole.

1953: Changed his name from Malcolm Little to Malcolm X and became the Assistant Minister of Nation of Islam's Detroit Temple.

1954: X was promoted to Minister of Nation of Islam's New York Temple.

1958: X married Betty Dean Sanders in Lansing, Michigan.

1959: X made his first trip to the Middle East and Africa.

1963: Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam, ordered Malcolm X to be silent, presumably because of remarks concerning President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Malcolm began work on an autobiography with Haley, making two-or-three hour visits to the writer's studio in Grenich Village.

March, 1964: Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and started his own organization, Muslim Mosque, Inc.

April, 1964: He traveled to the Middle East and Africa a second time, and received a new Islamic name: El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

May, 1964: X started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular political group.

February 14, 1965: Malcolm X's home was firebombed.

February 21, 1965: Malcolm X was assassinated as he began speaking at the Audubon Ballroom, New York.

This essay is specifically touching on the religion of Malcolm X.  X is of course most famous for being the preeminent minister of the Nation of Islam, of which he was an adherent for a decade and a half—almost a year before his death departing the organization.  But the concern here has to do with a much younger X, during his formative years in the Midwest when he was Malcolm Little.

But briefly, Malcolm X’s parents should be spotlighted, for they are crucial to our inquiry about his childhood religious affiliation.

Malcolm’s father, Earl Little, Sr., was born on July 29, 1890, in Reynolds, Georgia. Religiously Earl was Baptist, politically and philosophically, a follower of Marcus Garvey, and by trade a farmer, carpenter entrepreneur, and sometimes minister and politician.  Physically, he was tall—six foot four—muscular, dark skinned, and visually impaired, having lost an eye through unknown circumstances.  He was physically abusive to Louise Little and his children, perhaps because of the tremendous strain placed on him by his perpetual persecution by white hate groups.

Malcolm X’s mother, the former Louise Langdon Norton—who will become the focal point of this piece—was born on the island of Grenada in 1897.  She was raised an Anglican, and later, like her husband Earl but prior to meeting him, was a Garveyite. Louise was said to be a strikingly beautiful woman, very light skinned—her father was white and she could pass for white—with long lustrous dark hair.  She was multitalented with a resilient and independent spirit.

Earl and Louise were married in Montreal, Canada, on May 10, 1919.  Earl had three children from his first marriage—Ella, Earl Jr., and Mary—and with Louisa Little, Wilfred, Hilda, Philbert, Malcolm, Reginald, Yvonne and Wesley; and Louise had a son with an unknown man in 1938 named Robert.

Around 1929 the Little family—persecuted by whites because of their outspoken Garveyite agitation—moved from East Chicago, Indiana, to Lansing, Michigan, the state’s capitol, which at that time boasted a population of 80,000. However, in Lansing the Littles continued to be persecuted by white terrorists, their house firebombed on November 8, 1929.  No one was harmed on that occasion, but two years later on September 8, 1931, Malcolm X’s father was found “cut in two”—according to Lawrence G. Baril, the first police officer on the scene—with his head brutally bashed in next to the city’s streetcar tracks.  The dismembered Earl Little bled to death.  In Autobiography X states unequivocally that his father was killed by a local white supremacist group.

Suddenly, the 34 year old Louise Little was a widow with eight hungry mouths to feed during the impossible years of the Great Depression.  Louise is an unsung hero, for not only did she have to cope with the tremendous trauma of having the love of her life literally cut down in his prime, but the overwhelming fear, pressure and stress of providing for nine terrified, shattered children. To compound matters, one insurance company refused to pay Earl Little’s life insurance policy, claiming he had committed suicide, while the majority of the paltry settlement Louise received from the other was exhausted on funeral expenses.

By this time the Littles were living in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Michigan that had been constructed by Earl Little.  Significantly, the Littles were the sole black family along the road and in that section.  Malcolm states on page 8 of Autobiography: “We were the only Negroes in the area.”  Wilfred Little, his oldest brother, confirms this in the PBS documentary "Malcolm X: Make It Plain."  Additionally, X recalls his burgeoning entrepreneurial proclivities exhibited by selling bullfrog’s legs to whites living along their road.

Another significant point in this presentation is that Malcolm’s oldest full brother, Wilfred, who was his mother’s favorite, X’s says “her angel” somewhat jealously, became the de facto man of the house upon the death of Earl Little, quitting school and doing any work that would generate money for his family. Malcolm, meanwhile, resorted to the mischief and chicanery so seductive to teenagers, engaging in theft and property destruction.

Louise Little, struggling financially, began taking out loans and purchasing on credit.  Soon she was receiving welfare from the state of Michigan.  Unbeknownst to her at the time, her reception of welfare was the beginning of the end for the Little family’s cohesiveness for by the mid 1930s the state welfare agents began meddling in the lives of the Littles, according to Malcolm X even engaging in treachery and calumny, sowing seeds of dissatisfaction and resentment among the Little siblings, surreptitiously poisoning them against their mother.

And then, the Seventh-day Adventists came into the lives of the Little family.

Just a very brief background should be provided on Seventh-day Adventists in Michigan.  The SDA denomination was officially established in 1861 in Battle Creek, Michigan, less than an hour’s drive from the Littles farmhouse in Lansing. Indeed, Michigan was the early center of the denomination, home to the Review and Herald publishing house, Dime Tabernacle, Battle Creek Sanitarium, and SDA luminaries James and Ellen White, John Harvey Kellogg, John Loughborough, and John Andrews.  There have been more General Conference Sessions held in Michigan than all other locales combined. The same year that the denomination was established in 1861, the Michigan Conference was organized.  At the turn of the century, the conference administrative offices were relocated to Lansing near the Littles’ farmhouse.

Now, it is well known that Malcolm X mentioned Seventh-day Adventists in his autobiography.  Here are the three primary paragraphs pertaining to them, found on page 16 and 17 in almost every edition.  Bear in mind that the timeframe is from late 1934 to 1937.               

"About this time, my mother began to be visited by some Seventh Day Adventists who had moved into a house not too far down the road from us. They would talk to her for hours at a time, and leave booklets and leaflets and magazines for her to read. She read them, and Wilfred, who had started back to school after we had begun to get the relief food supplies, also read a lot. His head was forever in some book.

"Before long, my mother spent much time with the Adventists. It's my belief that what mostly influenced her was that they had even more diet restrictions than she always had taught and practiced with us. Like us, they were against eating rabbit and pork; they followed the Mosaic dietary laws. They ate nothing of the flesh without a split hoof, or that didn't chew a cud. We began to go with my mother to the Adventist meetings that were held further out in the country. For us children, I know that the major attraction was the good food they served. But we listened, too. There were a handful of Negroes, from small towns in the area, but I would say that it was ninety-nine percent white people. The Adventists felt that we were living at the end of time, that the world soon was coming to an end. But they were the friendliest white people I had ever seen. In some ways, though, we children noticed, and, when we were back at home, discussed, that they were different from us -- such as the lack of enough seasoning in their food, and the different way that white people smelled.

"Meanwhile, the state Welfare people kept after my mother. By now, she didn't make it any secret that she hated them, and didn't want them in her house. But they exerted their right to come, and I have many, many times reflected upon how, talking to us children, they began to plant the seeds of division in our minds. They would ask such things as who was smarter than the other. And they would ask me why I was "so different."

"I think they felt that getting children into foster homes was a legitimate part of their function, and the result would be less troublesome, however they went about it.

"And when my mother fought them, they went after her-first, through me. I was the first target. I stole; that implied that I wasn't being taken care of by my mother.

"All of us were mischievous at some time or another, I more so than any of the rest. Philbert and I kept a battle going. And this was just one of a dozen things that kept building up the pressure on my mother.

"I'm not sure just how or when the idea was first dropped by the Welfare workers that our mother was losing her mind.

"But I can distinctly remember hearing "crazy" applied to her by them when they learned that the Negro farmer who was in the next house down the road from us had offered to give us some butchered pork -- a whole pig, maybe even two of them -- and she had refused. We all heard them call my mother "crazy" to her face for refusing good meat. It meant nothing to them even when she explained that we had never eaten pork, that it was against her religion as a Seventh Day Adventist."

Much has been said about the veracity of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.  Published posthumously, the volume is indisputably a political work—with Malcolm X altering his past for present objectives—and redacted by Haley, who also shaped the piece to align with his own agenda.  An obvious example of the former is the fact that Malcolm X left the Nation of Islam and Elijah Muhammed while dictating the book to Haley, and his previously sanguine and praiseworthy treatment of the NOI and his former mentor are tempered.  An example of the latter’s redaction is seen in collaborator Haley’s decision to not include three chapters that he deemed potentially incendiary.

So it is a mistake to read Autobiography uncritically, but the early sections—before the advent of Detroit Red and an obviously overhyped reworking of a thug persona—seem to be as accurate a retelling a quarter of a century later could yield.  Yet provacatively, 25 years later Malcolm X deemed it essential to his life story to chronicle the impact of Seventh-day Adventists on his and his family’s lives. Here are the facts according to Malcolm X that can be drawn from the three paragraphs on pages 16 and 17:

-The SDAs moved into a house down the road from the Littles after Earl Little’s death

-SDAs came into the lives of the Littles when the fatherless family was in a desperate struggle to survive

-The Adventists visited Louise Little, seeking her out.

-These white Adventists spent hours in the Littles’ home

-The Adventists left publications for Louise Little to read

-Louise Little, and her eldest son, Wilfred, read the Adventist publications “a lot”

-Louise Little spent “much time” with the Adventists

-The Adventists’ dietary practices aligned with those of the Littles’

-Malcolm X was familiar with the doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventists, noting their eschatology and diet as the distinctive tenets that were most significant to him

-The Little family—including Malcolm—went to Adventist meetings in the country

-Adventists fed the hungry Littles

-Malcolm and his siblings enjoyed the food the Adventists served

-The food was a major attraction for the Little children

-Malcolm and his siblings listened during the Adventist programs

-The Adventist meetings the Littles attended were approximately 99% white; but there were a handful of blacks from small towns in the area

-The Adventists at the country meetings were “the friendliest white people X had ever seen”

-Malcolm and his siblings analyzed and discussed the Adventists

-They concluded “they were different from us, most notably in the lack of seasoning in their food, and the white people’s body odor”

-Malcolm’s mother was first called “crazy” because she refused to accept free pork from a black farmer because it was against her Seventh-day Adventist religion

-Louise Little identified herself as a Seventh-day Adventist

-She was willing to be persecuted for her Adventist dietary habits

-Her reputation was sullied as a result

The following are durable inferences that can be drawn from the quotations from Autobiography:

-The Adventists were the Littles most significant assisters in their time of need

-Not only did they tell them about their doctrines, but fed them, provided shelter and possibly monetary assistance (more will be said about the “country meetings”)  

-The Adventists flouted racial fraternization mores to witness to the Littles, braving possible retaliation from the white hate groups that purportedly murdered Earl Little

-The friendly Adventists whites are presented by Malcolm X as the opposites of the malevolent whites that persecuted the Littles from place to place and probably killed Earl Little

-Louise and Wilfred Little were baptized Seventh-day Adventists

-The Little household was run according to Adventist standards

-Malcolm X, at least for a couple of years, had a Seventh-day Adventist upbringing

-As Louise and Wilfred Little self-identified as Seventh-day Adventists without Malcolm explicitly stating if and when they were baptized, Malcolm himself was possibly a baptized Seventh-day Adventist but did not expressly state it.  He allows several times in his Autobiography that he “looked up to and admired” his older brother.

-The SDAs were the only redeeming and redeemable white people in X’s childhood recollections up to the point of their entrance into his life

I searched for evidence apart from Autobiography to corroborate that Louise Little and her family were Seventh-day Adventists.  All of Malcolm X’s major biographers acknowledge his family’s time as Adventists, but I wanted primary documents.  Unfortunately, however, no membership or baptismal records from the 1930s in the Grand Ledge or Lansing SDA churches are extant.  However, a very grainy photograph of the 1936 Lansing chapter of the Michigan Dorcas Society—a charitable organization of Seventh-day Adventist women established to minister to those in sickness and want—does exist, in which, fourth row from the front, third from the left, is a woman that closely resembles the only known photo of Louise Little. Upon examination, several Malcolm X scholars have acknowledged that there is a strong possibility this could be Louise Little.

Moving on, Malcolm X alludes to “meetings that were held further out in the country.” What exactly were these country meetings that the Littles attended?

In 1932 a tract of land was purchased near Grand Ledge, Michigan, by the Michigan Conference of Seventh-day Adventists about 12 miles west of Lansing, for a permanent camp-meeting site. A camp meeting, in Protestant parlance, is a country getaway for fellow believers to stay for a period of time (usually several weeks) and engage in fellowship and intensive spiritual and practical meetings.  The Michigan Conference built several edifices on the Grand Ledge property, including a church, school, and several meetinghouses.  During campmeetings, which took place in the summer, the grounds were crowded with small tents in rows for family habitation and larger tents for general meetings. The campmeeting programs of the mid 1930s featured speakers such as the Michigan Conference president Carlyle B. Haynes, best remembered in Adventism for books like God Sent A Man, and Meade McGuire, author of Lambs Among Wolves.

The Lansing SDA church, which was the official congregation of the Michigan Conference, was located on 610 West Washtenaw Street.  The Littles also probably attended this church also during their Adventist years, during the pastorship of C.W. Pruitt (appointed Sept. 11, 1934-September 1936) and H.L. Shoup. Those who attended Malcolm Little’s church were such SDA luminaries as Edward Heppenstall (1901-1994), Carlyle B. Haynes (1882-1958) and T.E. Unruh.  While the Littles attended Lansing SDA Meade MacGuire conducted a Youth Week of Prayer there and former General Conference president W.A. Spicer also attended meetings there.

Near to the church that the Littles attended was Conference Office located on 115 West Allegan Street, Fourth Floor Bach Building, in Lansing which later moved to 620 Townsend Street, and an Adventist Book Center, then called Book and Bible House.

While the Little’s patronized the Adventist churches, several important events were occurring in larger Adventism.

1931: W.W. Fordham led the Oakwood Student riots, which was the catalyst for the college’s first black    president, J.L. Moran.

1934: Hope of the Race by F.L. Peterson was published.           

Gospel Herald became Message.

1935    March 22: A.G. Daniells died.

1936    May 26-June 8: 43rd General Conference Session was held in San Francisco, California; at that session on May 26 J.L. McElhany—the president under which Regional Conferences were inaugurated—became the thirteenth president of the General Conference.

Riverside Sanitarium and Hospital (Nashville, Tennessee) was opened.

1937    September 1: W.C. White died of a stroke.

November 14: Groundbreaking was done for Loma Linda Foods factory.

The Sanctified Life was published.

The Littles’ time as Seventh-day Adventists was one of their last pleasant times before the demise of the family. After being impregnated then abandoned by a promising male suitor, Louise Little began to sink into insanity; and on January 31, 1939, she was committed to the psychiatric ward of the Kalamazoo State Hospital where she was confined for the next quarter century.  Meanwhile, the state welfare agents, whom Malcolm described as “vicious as vultures,” swooped in and dispersed the eight Little children.

What became of the religious persuasions of the Littles? 

When Malcolm was finally taken by the state welfare agents and assigned to a family called Gohanna shortly before Louis’s confinement, his mother’s last words were “Don’t let them feed him any pig.” Malcolm recalls that he attended a congregation of “sanctified holy rollers” with the Gohannas, undoubtedly a Pentecostal church.  X joined the Nation of Islam some ten years later in prison, and in the last year of his life became what may be called an international Muslim. X mentions Seventh-day Adventists several more times in Autobiography.  On page 26, when encountering the kindness of a white family the Swerlins, he reminisced, “It was the first time I’d eaten with white people—at least with grown white people—since the Seventh-day Adventists.”  On page 192 X recounts that when he was released from prison and was reunited with his sister Ella, that she was dead set against converting to Islam, proclaiming that “anyone could be whatever he wanted to be, Holy Roller, Seventh-day Adventist, or whatever it was, but she wasn’t going to become any Muslim.” Finally, when touching on the diverse backgrounds of some NOI ministers, Malcolm averred that one Lucius X of the Washington DC temple was a former Seventh-day Adventist.

Wilfred Little, he who had dutifully read the SDA literature given to him by his Adventist neighbors, went on to enjoy a modestly successful career in academia, converted to the Nation of Islam before Malcolm in 1947, and as he may have been instrumental in converting X to Seventh-day Adventism a decade earlier, converting him to the NOI shortly after his conversion.

In conclusion, the Seventh-day Adventists who befriended the Littles’ during the childhood of Malcolm X are a testament of the power of the Christian faith to transcend the artificial constructs of race and class.  These kind white people befriended a struggling black family who, for all intents and purposes, could only be a drain on their resources. Yet, they spent hours talking with the Littles, shared literature with them, invited them to their meetings, worshipped with them, overnighted with them, and fed them.  So strong was their appeal to the Littles that, at least Louise, embraced their faith and identified herself as a Seventh-day Adventist, even opting for her poverty-riddled family to go without food rather than forsaking her Adventist beliefs.  X, a lifelong searing condemner of white people—whom he would later characterize as devils—had not one negative thing to say of white Adventists, other than that their food was unseasoned and their body odor was different—a statement which he would later clarify as being true of all white people.  Ultimately, in the witness of these white Seventh-day Adventist, Malcolm X glimpsed something of the love of Jesus Christ—a love, I believe, that he was on the path to rediscovering when his life was prematurely snuffed out.