Three Women Who Helped Their Sons Become Civil Rights Icons

THE THREE MOTHERS
How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation
By Anna Malaika Tubbs

Of course we should know more about the mothers of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin. They are the inception, the root and the core. As Malcolm himself put it: “The mother is the first teacher of the child. The message she gives that child, that child gives to the world.”

It’s such an obvious statement that it is hard to understand how Louise Little, Alberta King and Berdis Baldwin are not household names. Portraits of the three mothers are “mostly limited or completely inaccurate,” Anna Malaika Tubbs, a Gates scholar and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Cambridge University, writes in “The Three Mothers.” They’ve been thoroughly “ignored even though it should have been easy throughout history to see them, to at least wonder about them.” Tubbs aims to correct that erasure by piecing together what she can from the “margins and footnotes” of books, speeches, funeral programs and letters.

She writes that it is possible to identify “beautiful intersections” in the lives of these women, who were born within six years of one another. All three “learned to read and write above an average level,” and all three formed “passions for the arts of writing, poetry and music.” Alberta, Louise and Berdis instilled this love in their children, which was “a form of resistance” in itself, encouraging “Black children to dream in this way.”

“The storyteller influences the story,” Tubbs writes. Her goal is to reframe the ordering of facts and, in doing so, to assign them new values.

What must it have meant to Malcolm that his mother came from the rebellious island nation of Grenada, where Caribs fought and bravely died for their freedom? What did it mean that she spoke several languages, and that she taught her children to recite the alphabet in French? Malcolm recalled how Louise Little kept a dictionary on the kitchen table alongside daily newspaper clippings that she made her children study, correcting misinformation given them by their white teachers.

What did it mean to him to have a mother who traveled alone by steamship in 1917 to Montreal, where she become an “influential member” of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and “one of Marcus Garvey’s closest confidants,” writing and reporting for The Negro World? Tubbs lingers over this history, reveling in the beauty and rediscovery of how such a mother might have shaped her son’s deepest beliefs.

Born Malcolm Little, Malcolm X was “part of a particular experience, part of a tradition, part of a family that resisted the corner into which America tried to push them,” as his brother Wilfred once put it. Louise Little continued that tradition.

Christine King Ferris, Martin Luther King Jr.’s oldest sister, echoes this sentiment: “I have to chuckle as I realize there are people who actually believe M.L. just appeared,” Tubbs quotes her as saying. “They think he simply happened, that he appeared fully formed, without context, ready to change the world. Take it from his big sister, that’s simply not the case.” In fact, he came from “a long line of activists and ministers,” she said, “incredible men and women who served as leaders in their time and place.”

Tubbs excavates and honors those traditions via the mothers, rightly noting that it is impossible to grasp King’s relationship to the Black church without first understanding “the foundation of Alberta’s unwavering faith in the Lord.” Alberta was born within walking distance of Ebenezer Baptist Church and grew up watching her parents, the Rev. Adam Williams and Jennie Celeste, as they organized strategy meetings, stood up to injustice and became early members of the N.A.A.C.P.

Tubbs’s portrait is an intimate narrative that aims to link not only Little, King and Baldwin, but all Black mothers, including herself (she gave birth to a son while researching and writing the book). This gives rise to an inclusive tone that can be alternately comforting and jarring: comforting when Tubbs writes of “our” shared experience as mothers; jarring when the narrative suddenly shifts to the second-person “you.”

Still, the intersections she highlights are beautiful — and including more of them might have enriched the story even more. After Malcolm’s assassination, for example, it was Baldwin who was hired to write the film adaptation of his autobiography; later, just before his death in 1987, Baldwin was at work on a project about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers.

There are any number of places where the reader yearns for more anecdotes, more description and, most of all, more of the mothers’ own voices. What did they say, feel and think at any given historical moment?

And what of Berdis’s gifts as a writer? The notes she wrote to Baldwin’s school were admired by his teachers and principal alike. Her birthday wishes were “some of the most beautiful ever written,” according to her children and grandchildren. Baldwin and his mother corresponded regularly during his years abroad. Tubbs, who engineers a phone interview with three of her descendants, never quite explains where these letters are. Perhaps the most historically neglected of the three, Berdis lived until 1999, 12 years after her son’s death, yet she remained mostly silent about her own role in history.

Louise Little and Alberta King likewise survived their sons. Little lived for 26 years after Malcolm’s murder without writing a book or even commenting on the assassination. King died at age 69, murdered as she sat at the organ in her beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church — yet even this shocking crime is brushed over too quickly in these pages: Tubbs offers no in-depth discussion of who shot her or why, six years after the assassination of her son.

“It is only a disservice when we hide ourselves,” she writes in the final pages of the book. “When our children do not know what we have gone through and how we survived it, when we allow others to define who we are.”

Try as she might, not even another mother can salvage such monumental erasures.

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