As Black History Months draws to a close it leaves in its wake a number of renewed memories and events, most notably the annual reflection on the life and legacy of Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). In fact, our celebration of Malcolm’s eventful life was given an added boost this year with the six-part Netflix series about the great leader’s assassination.
The series has been so provocative that the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is seriously considering reopening the case. Should that happen it may bring to light a lot of information that has been concealed, particularly the surveillance of Malcolm from 1964 to the end of his life in February 1965—and possibly beyond.
While the centerpiece of the series is devoted to who killed Malcolm, for me it was an opportunity to return again to Malcolm’s last eleven months that is the focus of the class I teach at City College on the legendary activist. Malcolm’s life includes a cast of thousands, but one person is often overlooked in the films, documentaries, books, and other attempts to capture the great man’s furious passage among us: his half-sister Ella Little-Collins.
Portions of her life and influence on Malcolm can be culled from his autobiography. More significantly is “Seventh Child,” the book she envisioned and worked on with her son, Rodnell Collins with assistance from the esteemed author and Malcolmite, A. Peter Bailey.
Ella was born in 1914 in Butler, Georgia to Earl and Daisy Mason-Little. Among her many endeavors was a stint as a secretary for Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., an entrepreneurial venture with her sisters in the ownership of a store as well as an investor in real estate. Following her half-siblings, she joined the Nation of Islam in the mid-’50s and was instrumental in establishing the Boston mosque before her departure in 1959, even before Malcolm’s assassination.
It was her guardianship of Malcolm that is perhaps the most important commitment and one that she relished and related so warmly in her book. Malcolm was 14 when he began living with Ella after being shuttled from one foster home to another when his mother, Louise, was no longer capable of taking care of her children. On occasion, Ella had visited Malcolm in Michigan and he had often traveled to Boston to spend time with her, so their living together was nothing new.
She helped Malcolm secure his first meaningful job working as a cook on the trains, and while she was deeply disturbed when Malcolm was arrested, tried, and convicted she remained loyal and welcomed him once he had served six and half years in prison. “As much as I cared for my brother,” she wrote in “Seventh Child,” “I wasn’t prepared to help him to continue on the path to destruction.” During her years as a practicing Sunni Muslim, Ella continued her community activism, providing instruction and support in Black and ethnic studies programs in colleges and universities across the nation. She founded the Sarah A. Little School of Preparatory Arts in Boston.
When Malcolm was released from prison, Ella felt he would do better in Detroit rather than returning to Boston. Plus, he would be with his brothers and sisters who could help him find a job and a place to live. As the world knows, Malcolm’s ascendance in the NOI was rapid and within four years he was the organization’s national spokesperson and a guiding force in the establishment of mosques and new recruits. Even then Ella began to have doubts about the NOI and its leader, Elijah Muhammad. Soon, Malcolm was voicing his own complaints and suspicions about Muhammad’s extramarital activities with his secretaries, including the fathering of several children.
After being silenced for his comments about the assassination of Pres. Kennedy, Malcolm’s split grew more imminent and he was finally forced out of the NOI in March 1964. Ella wrote: “I don’t believe Elijah Muhammad would have suspended Malcolm for the ‘chickens coming to roost’ statement if he had been free to act on his own. By that time, the Chicago crew had convinced him that Malcolm was a serious threat to the deal they had cut with the white supremacists and to money continuing to pour into headquarters.”
In 1964, both Ella and Malcolm had plans to visit Mecca, but there was only enough money between them to finance but one, so Ella gave Malcolm what he needed to make the trip. In the days leading up to his assassination, Malcolm shared some intimate secrets with Ella, including his belief that it wasn’t the NOI or the FBI that had him their crosshairs, but the CIA. “They’re extremely afraid of my contacts in Africa and Asia,” he told her.
With Malcolm gone, Ella became the president of the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) and the Muslim Mosque, Inc. However, without Malcolm’s presence, many of the plans formulated by the organizations were still-born, Ella said she realized that Malcolm’s petition to the United Nations “had little chance of success. The government agencies behind the assassination knew that better than anyone else.” Dead, too, was his plan to present scholarships for students to study at various renowned academies.
The onset of diabetes led to the amputation of both legs, and though limited in mobility, she was still an outspoken citizen on many issues. In 1996, at 82, Ella joined the ancestors, leaving behind cherished loved ones and family members and the Ella Collins Institute at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which has as its goal to establish and ensure a classical understanding of Islam with modern scholarship.