How mothers of MLK, Malcolm X and James Baldwin shaped their sons' activism

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Brian Hardzinski

Three heroes of the 20th century civil rights movement all had great mothers. Alberta King was the mother of Martin Luther King, Jr. Louise Little was the mom of Malcolm X. And Berdis Baldwin was mom to James Baldwin. All three mothers outlived their sons. 

Their stories are now in Anna Malaika Tubbs’s new book called “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.” 

She tells KCRW, “No matter where they were born or raised, whether they were abroad or in a small town or in a big city, they were treated very similarly, because this is when Jim Crow reigned supreme.”

All three women were interested in writing and loved language, she says. “They were artists in their own right. Alberta was a singer. Berdis was a writer, Louise also had this love and power over language herself. She spoke many different languages. This was informative, not only in their careers and what they were passionate about, but 100% played a huge role in how they mothered their children.”

King grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. Her parents, who were religious leaders in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, taught her to embrace the power of her faith to create change. 

“They believed that with their faith and with their religion, they needed to lead people towards freedom. That they needed to use their privileges for social justice. “

Little was born in the Caribbean on the island of Grenada. According to Tubbs, the country was still grappling with the long-term impacts of colonialism. 

“Her grandparents [were] teaching her the importance of maintaining her independence as a Black woman, of professing her Black pride. She's raised believing that this is part of her cause, and part of her life is to fight for Black freedom and Black independence.”

Baldwin was raised in Deal Island, Maryland. Jim Crow laws were in effect in town, and her community also dealt with lynchings. 

“But she also hears the stories of freedom fighters that come out of her state like Harriet Tubman. Later on, Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass. So Maryland has this very rich history of fighting against white supremacy. And this is something that Berdis was also informed by.”

Each mother’s experience in the world framed how they raised their children. Photo courtesy of Flatiron Books. 

Tubbs points out that each woman’s experience in the world framed how they raised their children. 

She says King operated from a more privileged place. Her parents led marches and were some of the first members of the NAACP. 

“There is definitely this respectability politics that also plays a role in how Alberta grows up. She's more affluent, she is a part of this really famous church, and we see that in how she raises her children. … So there's just a lot at play in terms of how she also has been trained to believe there is a way to stand up that she sees as dignified, something that they don't call non-violence, but it's very similar in terms of the tactics that they're using.” 

On the other hand, Little and her family constantly faced violent white supremacist groups. Tubbs says that helped inform Malcolm X’s approach to being more confrontational during the civil rights movement. 

“They're constantly being attacked by these white supremacist groups, constantly being persecuted, their houses are burned down. … When you see all the terror that he endured, not only the house being burned down, but his father being murdered, then his mother being put away against her will in an institution for 25 years of his life, him being taken away and separated from his siblings, it's going to be a really different approach to what he sees as the solution.”

Tubbs notes that these women understood the value of what they left behind. 

“All three of them saw the importance of their lifestyle and the importance of educating the next generation of their families, maybe even more so than before, because now their grandchildren, many of them were fatherless.” 

Anna Malaika Tubbs is author of “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.” Photo courtesy of Anna Malaika Tubbs. 

Excerpt from “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation” by Anna Malaika Tubbs

Writing about Black motherhood while becoming one gave me a much deeper perspective than I had before. As my own life and body transformed, it became even more important to me to tell Alberta’s, Berdis’s, and Louise’s stories before they became mothers. Their lives did not begin with motherhood; on the contrary, long before their sons were even thoughts in their minds, each woman had her own passions, dreams, and identity. Each woman was already living an incredible life that her children would one day follow. Their identities as young Black girls in Georgia, Grenada, and Maryland influenced the ways in which they would approach motherhood. Their exposure to racist and sexist violence from the moment they were born would inform the lessons they taught their children. Their intellect and creativity led to fostering such qualities in their homes. The relationships they witnessed in their parents and grandparents would inspire their own approaches to marriage and child-rearing. Highlighting their roles as mothers does not erase their identities as independent women. Instead, these identities informed their ability to raise independent children who would go on to inspire the world for years to come.

These women’s lives create a rich portrait of the nuances of Black motherhood. Yes, all three were mothers of sons who became internationally known, and their stories share many similarities, but by no means can their identities be reduced into one. Each woman carried different values, faiths, talents, and traumas. I hope their rich differences will open our eyes to the many influences and manifestations of Black motherhood in the United States and beyond.

The narratives of these three women have fueled and empowered me, but this work has been extremely difficult at times. Black motherhood in the United States is inextricable from a history of violence against Black people. 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 slicing open the vaginal tissues of enslaved women as they were held down by force. He refused to provide them with anesthesia. François Marie Prevost, who is credited with introducing C-sections in the United States, perfected his procedure by cutting into the abdomens of laboring 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 resist it. Beyond the normal worries all mothers encounter as they progress through pregnancy and get closer to their labors, we Black mothers are aware that we are risking our lives. Black women in the United States are more likely to die while pregnant and while giving birth than other mothers. Beyond the normal fear that all mothers feel when the gut-wrenching thought of losing their child creeps its way into their minds, we Black mothers experience a heightened level of worry. We are aware of how differently our children are seen and treated in society, and our fears are confirmed by articles and news stories reporting the violence that Black children experience constantly, whether at parties, in school, or at their local parks. This fear continues as our children become adults who are in danger even as they sleep in their beds, sit in their own apartments, when they call for help, or when they go on a run.

Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were well aware of the dangers they and their children would be met with as Black people in the United States, and they all strove to equip their children not only to face the world but to change it. With the knowledge that they themselves were seen as “less than” and their children would be, too, the three mothers collected tools to thrive with the hopes of teaching their children how to do the same. They found ways to give life and to humanize themselves, their children, and, in turn, our entire community. As history tells us, all of their sons did indeed make a difference in this world, but they did so at a cost. In all three cases, the mothers’ worst fears became reality: each woman was alive to bury her son. It is an absolute injustice that far too many Black mothers today can say the same thing.

In the face of such tragedy, each mother persisted in her journey to leave this world a better place than when she entered it. Yet their lives continued largely to be ignored. When Malcolm X was assassinated, when Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed shortly after, and even when James Baldwin died from stomach cancer years later, their works were rightly celebrated, but virtually no one stopped to wonder about the grief their mothers were facing. Even more painful to me is the fact that their fathers were mentioned, while their mothers were largely erased.

I chose to focus on mothers of sons. Black men were certainly not the only leaders of the civil rights movement; mothers of revolutionary daughters have also been forgotten. I simply chose three figures who are often put in conversation together and who demonstrate the distressingly strong erasure 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 erase my influence on his identity. Phrases like “He’s strong, just like his father!” or “He’s already following in his dad’s footsteps” when he reaches a milestone cause more harm than people think. By choosing three mothers of sons, I do not want to erase daughters or other children. I am instead making the point that no matter our gender, everything starts with our birthing 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 carry out autonomously defined investigations of self in a society which through racial, sexual, and class oppression systematically denies our existence. . . .” It is crucial to understand the layers of oppression Black women face, while remembering that solely studying oppression keeps us from honoring “the ways in which we have created and maintained our own intellectual traditions as Black women.” I pay close attention to this balance and bear witness to the many challenges Berdis, Alberta, and Louise faced while acknowledging 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, which presents beautiful intersections in their lives. Because they were all born around the same time and gave birth to their famous sons around the same time, and two of them passed away around the same time, I reflect on Black womanhood in the early 1900s, Black motherhood in the 1920s, and their 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 passed in the late 1990s. Their lives give us three incredible perspectives on an entire century of American history. By seeing the United States develop through the lives of Berdis, Alberta, and Louise, you will be left with a richer understanding of each world war, the Great Depression, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, race riots, police brutality, welfare debates, the effects of policies proposed by each president they lived to witness, and much more.

But their stories go beyond a new understanding of American history, especially the civil rights movement of the 1960s. An ode to these three women is an ode to Black womanhood—perhaps Black women of today will also be able to find themselves in the life stories of Berdis, Alberta, and/or Louise, as I have.