participated in civil rights protests and campaigns to elevate African Americans to elective office. Earl Little was involved as an officer in the International Industrial Club, a black working-class organization, and it was in that capacity, rather than as a UNIA leader, that he and two other club officers wrote to President Calvin Coolidge on June 8, 1927, asking for Garvey to be released. The Littles left town shortly after this petition was mailed, their departure delayed only by the birth of yet another son, Reginald. (Shortly after his birth Reginald was diagnosed with hernia problems; poor health would plague him into manhood.)
The family’s next stop was East Chicago, Indiana, but their stay was even briefer, since the state proved to be another KKK hotbed. By 1929, they had moved on again, purchasing a one-and-a-half-story farmhouse on a small three-lot property on the outskirts of Lansing, Michigan. Curiously, it was a neighborhood where few blacks lived. The Littles failed to realize that the deed for the property contained a special provision—a racial exclusion clause that voided the sale to blacks. Within several months, their white neighbors, well aware of such clauses, filed to evict them, and a local judge granted the request. Earl retained the services of a lawyer, who filed an appeal.
Waiting on the due processes of law was not enough for local racists. Early in the morning of November 8, the Littles’ house was shaken by an explosion that Earl would later attribute to several white men, none of whom he recognized, dousing the back of the house in gasoline and setting it afire. Within seconds, flames and thick smoke engulfed the farmhouse. Four-year-old Malcolm and his siblings would relive this event for the rest of their lives. “We heard a big boom,” remembered Wilfred.
When we woke up, fire was everywhere, and everybody was running into the walls and into each other, trying to get away. I could hear my mother yelling, my father yelling—they made sure they got us all rounded up and got us out. The fire was spreadin’ so fast that they couldn’t hardly bring anything else out. My mother began to run back and bring our bedclothing, whatever she could grab, and pulled it to the porch and then out into the yard. She made the mistake of laying my baby sister down on top of some quilts and things that were there and then went back for something else. When she came back, she didn’t see the baby—what had happened, they’d put somethin’ else on top of the baby. And my mother almost lost her mind. I mean they were hanging on to her to keep her from going back into the house. And then finally the baby cried, and they knew where the baby was.
The terrified family huddled together in the cold night air. Enraged, Earl “took a shot at somebody he said was running away from the house,” Wilfred recalled. No fire wagon arrived to rescue them, and their home burned to the ground.
The police assigned Detective George W. Waterman to investigate the Little family’s house-burning case. White residents in the neighborhood told the detective that a local gas station proprietor, Joseph Nicholson, had called the fire department but it had refused to come. Yet almost immediately, rumors circulated in the neighborhood that Earl had started the fire himself, and Waterman decided to pursue this line of inquiry vigorously. His suspicions were reinforced when he learned that Earl held a two-thousand-dollar home policy with the Westchester Fire Insurance Company, as well as a five-hundred-dollar policy on household contents with the Rouse Insurance Company. Waterman and another officer interviewed Nicholson, who claimed that Earl Little gave him a revolver the previous night. Nicholson produced the gun, which had five remaining bullets and one empty cylinder. Meanwhile, newly homeless, the Littles had decamped to Lansing, to stay temporarily with the family of a man named Herb Walker. That same evening,