Anna Malaika Tubbs has given us a book about The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation. I began reading this book near the end of Black History Month and finished it on International Women’s Day, a serendipitous accident of relevance.
Emma Berdis Baldwin was born on the island of Grenada to an activist mother and father who faced the same fights for racial equality we have seen in America. America had claimed to be a nation where all men (and they did mean men) were created equal, but of course when she arrived she found that she was not in any racial nirvana. James was Berdis’s eldest child. Berdis was able to communicate love, pride, and the value of an education to her family and her family remained a close and loving one living in a four story Harlem building owned by James Baldwin which offered places for his sisters and brothers. Finding a mother as beloved as Berdis, a mother who produces a child of such value to the nation and the world is surely enough to hold a place for Berdis in our historical memory.
Louise Little, mother of Malcolm X, was an activist all her life. She and her husband and her children moved frequently because her activism made them targets. She was a follower and an important worker in the movement begun by Marcus Garvey. She wrote in his newspaper and spread his message despite one close call with the KKK and other terrorist attempts to force her to be quiet. Her husband Earl was killed when he was pushed in front of a trolley. She and her children struggled with poverty after Earl’s death. Social services (welfare) pursued the family, eventually sending Louise to a mental institution, although her only mental illness was the stress of single parenting in a world where she could find no work. Malcolm X had followed in his mother’s footsteps, although he was not a Garveyite. He founded the Black Panthers and was assassinated for his embrace of violence as a means to change, but of course Martin Luther King Jr. who believed in nonviolent protest was also assassinated. Louise was released after 25 years in the mental institution and was able to spend her last years surrounded by her family in a lovely and peaceful black town they founded.
Alberta King was married to the powerful reverend at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. She led a life of greater affluence. Alberta was a talented musician who played the organ at that famous church and led a renowned choir that people came from miles around to hear. She also gave lessons in music to many black Atlanta children. As she watched Martin Luther, (ML) as he was called, turn into a speaker who captured the attention of the entire world she worried constantly about the forces arrayed against him. One day a stranger entered the Ebenezer Baptist Church and shot Alberta and four others as she sat at her organ. She survived to be surrounded in her age by her remaining children and grandchildren.
Anna Malaika Tubbs is well aware of how women, especially Black women get erased from history and she did not want that to happen in the case of at least these three moms who gave the world so much. As she writes she shows us the ways that these sons were products of their upbringing and how the mothers were the most influential forces in their children’s lives. These mothers lived through many dark days and they kept their families afloat and put hope and love and a need to speak out in their hearts. Our nation benefitted from the lives of these three men and they would, all three, wish us to remember their mothers. I can’t think of a better message for International Women’s Day (March 8, 2021)