Two of the most influential Americans of the 20th Century were born on this day to parents who had fled the the Jim Crow South and faced heartbreak in the North that propelled them on their respective paths during their short lives.
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry, whose beloved play, “A Raisin in the Sun,” became a classic in American theater, was born May 19, 1930, in Chicago, to Carl and Nannie Hansberry, a real estate broker and a school teacher, who had journeyed to Chicago from Mississippi and Tennessee during the Great Migration.
Malcolm Little, who as Malcolm X would become one of the most recognized and debated figures in American history, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 19, 1925, to Earl Little, a lay minister who had journeyed north from Georgia, and Louise Little, who had been born in Grenada.
Hansberry’s parents left the Jim Crow South only to discover hostility in the North. She was eight years old when her father bought a house in the all-white Washington Park section of Chicago. There she witnessed violence against her family as her parents tried to stand their ground.
The neighbors attacked them and filed suit to force the Hansberrys out, backed by state courts and restrictive covenants. The Hansberrys took their case to the Supreme Court to challenge the restrictive covenants and to return to the house they bought.
The case culminated in a 1940 Supreme Court decision that helped strike a blow against segregation, though the hostility continued. A mob surrounded their house at one point, throwing bricks and broken concrete, narrowly missing young Lorraine’s head. It would not be until the late 1960’s that fair housing legislation would take effect.
The turmoil inspired Hansberry to write “A Raisin in the Sun,” about a black family on the South Side of Chicago living in dilapidated housing and at odds over what to do after the death of the patriarch. The play debuted on Broadway in 1959 and was nominated for four Tony Awards. The film version was released in 1961 with Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands reprising their Broadway roles.
Hansberry said that their housing ordeal had “required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house.” She recalled being “spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.”
Malcolm X was six years old when his father, who had been been under continuous attack for his role in civil rights in the North, died a violent, mysterious death that plunged the family into poverty and dislocation. Despite the upheaval, Malcolm was accomplished in his predominantly white school, but when he shared his dream of becoming a lawyer, a teacher told him that the law was “no realistic goal for a n—–.” He dropped out soon afterward.
He would go on to become known as Detroit Red, Malcolm X and el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, a voice of the dispossessed and a counterweight to Dr. Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights Movement. Denzel Washington portrayed him in Spike Lee’s 1992 film ” Malcolm X.” TIME Magazine has named “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as one of the 10 most influential works of nonfiction of the 20th Century.
Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in February 1965 at the age of 39. The site of his birth home in North Omaha is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Lorraine Hansberry died at age 34 in January 1965 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. The house that her family had to fight for back in the 1930s, at 6140 South Rhodes, is now a Chicago landmark.
For more information: “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” by Lorraine Hansberry. “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” as told to Alex Haley.
— The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration