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Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture > Malcolm X: A Search for Truth

Growing Up: Malcolm Little to “Detroit Red,” 1925–45

“…before long, my nickname happened. Just when, I don’t know—but people, knowing I was from Michigan, would ask me what city. Since most New Yorkers had never heard of Lansing, I would name Detroit. Gradually, I began to be called “Detroit Red”—and it stuck.”
The Autobiography of Malcolm X

During the first twenty years of his life, Malcolm Little was shaped by social, familial, and personal forces that forged his identity as an independent thinker with a strong personality and innate leadership abilities—although he lost his way during his adolescence and young manhood.

Malcolm’s parents, Earl and Louise Little, had met in Montreal, Canada, at a UNIA convention, and they remained devoted to the international black worldview and political stance of the movement. White supremacists harassed them because of their politics, and when Malcolm’s father was killed in East Lansing, Michigan, black neighbors felt the local racists were responsible.

After Earl Little’s death, Malcolm’s mother sank into desperate poverty. The children, especially Malcolm, became increasingly difficult to handle, and the racist social service authorities hounded Louise Little. Despite her valiant efforts, she lost control and suffered a nervous breakdown that sent her to a mental institution, and her younger children to foster homes and a juvenile facility. Malcolm was an adolescent too young to understand all the forces at work on his family. Though his behavior strayed further and further from his parents’ standards, he and his siblings managed to maintain close ties throughout their separation.

Then an older sibling from Earl Little’s first marriage, Ella Little Collins, came to visit from Boston in 1940 and invited Malcolm to spend some time with her there. His foray to the big city exhilarated him, and he ended up dropping out of school after the eighth grade and living with her. He loved the relative freedom Boston offered, and he found ways to express his resistance to white power. For the next five years he escalated his involvement in Boston’s black criminal underworld and tried to master the street life of the black mecca, Harlem. There he became known as “Detroit Red.” But he got caught after a string of burglaries in Boston and, in January 1946, was convicted and sentenced to up to ten years in prison.



May 19 - Born Malcolm Little, Omaha, Nebraska, to Louise and Earl Little.

Alain Locke edits and publishes The New Negro, anthology of literary works by blacks.


December - Little family moves to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.


Little home in Lansing, Michigan, set on fire and destroyed. Earl Little builds new home in East Lansing.

October 24 - Stock market crashes, leading to Great Depression.


Wallace D. Fard (aka W. Fard Muhammad) founds Nation of Islam in Detroit, Michigan.


September 28 - Earl Little run over by streetcar and dies.


May 28 - Betty Sanders (later Betty X and Betty Shabazz) born; grows up in Detroit.

Wallace D. Fard (aka W. Fard Muhammad) disappears. Elijah Muhammad succeeds him as leader of Nation of Islam.


June 22 - Heavyweight champion Joe Louis defeats German Max Schmeling at Yankee Stadium, New York City.


January - Louise Little declared legally insane and committed to state mental hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan, remaining there twenty-six years.

Spring - Placed in juvenile home.


Lives in various foster homes in Lansing.


Goes to live with sister Ella in Boston.

At age sixteen, takes job on the New York to Boston train route. Moves to Harlem and works at Small’s Paradise on 135th Street. Gets involved in New York City hustling and returns to Boston. Gets involved in petty crimes in Boston.


December 7 - U.S. enters World War II. More than 1 million African-American women and men serve in armed forces throughout war.


October - Classified 4–F and disqualified for service in U.S. Army.


Becomes more involved in hustling and selling drugs and bootleg whiskey. Gains name “Detroit Red.”


December - Involved in string of thefts in Boston.


January - Arrested in Boston on charges of larceny, breaking and entering, and possession of firearms.

Next Section: Becoming Malcolm X: Incarceration and Conversion, 1946-52