Three Moms Who Formed the American Civil Rights Motion

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Photo courtesy Anna Malaika Tubbs

The names Berdis Baldwin, Louise Little, and Alberta King might not spark instant recognition. But they should. They are the women who raised the most famous civil rights activists in American history: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Anna Malaika Tubbs the three mothers

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Gates scholar, sociology graduate student, and author Anna Malaika Tubbs wrote The Three Mothers to piece together the diverse but overlapping stories of these women. It examines our tendency to understand women through the lens of the men in their lives rather than see them for themselves. At the same time, The Three Mothers is a poetic festival: of blackness, femininity and how mothers shape the world by shaping their children.

In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, Tubbs reflects on what makes the three mothers so powerful and personal.

From the three mothers

Writing about black motherhood while becoming one gave me a much deeper perspective than before. As my own life and body changed, it became even more important for me to tell the stories of Alberta, Berdis and Louise before they became mothers. Her life did not begin with motherhood; on the contrary, long before her sons even had thoughts on their minds, every woman had her own passions, dreams, and identities. Every woman already lived an incredible life that her children would one day follow. Their identities as young black girls in Georgia, Grenada, and Maryland influenced the way they would approach motherhood. Their exposure to racist and sexist violence from the moment they were born would affect the lessons they taught their children. Their intellect and creativity resulted in such traits being encouraged in their homes. The relationships they experienced with their parents and grandparents would inspire their own approaches to marriage and parenting. Emphasizing her role as a mother does not erase her identity as an independent woman. Instead, these identities informed about their ability to raise independent children who would inspire the world for years to come.

The life of these women creates a rich portrait of the nuances of black motherhood. Yes, all three were mothers of sons who became internationally known and their stories share much in common, but their identities cannot be reduced to one. Each woman had different values, beliefs, talents, and trauma. I hope that their rich differences will open our eyes to the many influences and manifestations of black motherhood in the United States and beyond.

The stories told by these three women have fueled and empowered me, but this work has been extremely difficult at times. Black motherhood in the United States is inextricably linked to the history of violence against blacks. American gynecology was built by torturing black women and experimenting on their bodies to test procedures. J. Marion Sims, known as the father of American gynecology, developed his techniques by cutting open the vaginal tissue of enslaved women while they were being forcibly restrained. He refused to numb her. François Marie Prevost, credited with introducing caesarean sections in the United States, perfected his technique by cutting the stomach of working women who were slaves. These women were treated like animals and their pain was ignored.

There is a paradoxical relationship between the dehumanization we black women and our children face and our ability to fight back. Aside from the normal worries that all mothers encounter as they progress and approach their jobs during pregnancy, we black mothers are aware that we are risking our lives. Black women in the United States are more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than other mothers. Aside from the normal fear that all mothers experience when the thought of losing their child creeps into their minds, we black mothers experience increased levels of worry. We are aware of how differently our children are seen and treated in society, and our fears are borne out by articles and news reporting the violence that black children experience all the time, be it at parties, at school or at school in their local parks. This fear continues as our children become adults in danger, even when they sleep in their beds, sit in their own homes, call for help, or walk.

Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were aware of the dangers they and their children would face as blacks in the United States, and they all strived to not only equip their children to face the world, but to change it. Knowing that they were viewed as “younger than” themselves and their children as well, the three mothers gathered tools to thrive in hopes of teaching their children how to do the same. They found ways to give life and to humanize themselves, their children and thus our entire community. As the story goes, all of their sons actually made a difference in this world, but they did so at a cost. In all three cases, the mother’s worst fears became reality: every woman lived to bury her son. It is an absolute injustice that far too many black mothers can say the same thing today.

Faced with this tragedy, every mother persisted in her journey to leave this world in a better place than when she entered it. However, their lives continued to be largely ignored. When Malcolm X was assassinated, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed shortly thereafter, and James Baldwin died years later of stomach cancer, their works were rightly celebrated, but practically no one stopped wondering about their mothers’ grief. Even more painful to me is the fact that their fathers were mentioned while their mothers were largely obliterated.

I’ve focused on mothers of sons. Black men were certainly not the only leaders of the civil rights movement; Mothers of revolutionary daughters were also forgotten. I have simply selected three characters who often come into conversation with each other and who demonstrate the painfully strong extinction of identity in the mother-son relationship. Coincidentally, I gave birth to a boy, my incredible little boy, and I have already faced others’ attempts to obliterate my influence on his identity. Sentences like “He is strong, just like his father!” or “He’s already following in his father’s footsteps” when he hits a milestone that does more damage than people think. By choosing three mothers of sons, I don’t want to wipe out daughters or other children. Instead, I make the point that regardless of our gender, it all starts with our child-bearing parent.

In telling the stories of these three mothers, I hope to join others who have responded to Brave’s call for “Black women to conduct self-defined self-examination in a society that systematically denies our existence through racial, sexual and class oppression. It is important to understand the layers of oppression black women face and remember that studying it alone prevents us from “honoring the way we can honor our own intellectual traditions as blacks Created and sustained women ”. I pay close attention to this balance, and show the many challenges Berdis, Alberta, and Louise faced as I recognize their ability to survive, thrive, and build in spite of them.

Louise, Berdis and Alberta were all born within six years of each other, and their famous sons were all born within five years of each other, making beautiful intersections in their lives. Since they were all born around the same time, and gave birth to their famous sons at around the same time, and two of them died around the same time, I am thinking about black femininity in the early 1900s, black motherhood in the 1920s and her after influence on the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The first of the three mothers was born in the late 1890s and the last of the three mothers died in the late 1990s. Her life gives us three incredible perspectives on an entire century of American history. Seeing the United States develop in the lives of Berdis, Alberta, and Louise will give you a better understanding of each World War, Great Depression, Great Migration, Harlem Renaissance, Race Unrest, Police Brutality, and Welfare Debate, the impact of the policies proposed to each president that they witnessed; and much more.

However, their stories go beyond a new understanding of American history, particularly the civil rights movement of the 1960s. An ode to these three women is an ode to black femininity – maybe black women today can find themselves in the life stories of Berdis, Alberta and / or Louise, as I did.

Excerpt from the three mothers. Copyright © 2021 by Anna Malaika Tubbs. Excerpted with permission from Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan Publishers. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written consent of the publisher.

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