Religious leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X and author James Baldwin have become enduring icons of the Civil Rights movement. But what about Alberta King, Louise Little and Berdis Baldwin — the mothers who raised them?
The rarely discussed influence of those women is the subject of Anna Malaika Tubbs’ new book “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.” A doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge, Tubbs is a sociologist, anthropologist and expert in multidisciplinary studies. Outside academia, she is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant.
Tubbs will appear in a virtual author talk at the Atlanta History Center on Wednesday, Feb. 10, at 7 p.m. Joining her in the conversation will be Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. Registration for the free discussion is available on the museum’s website.
Why choose these women in particular for your book?
There are so many women I could have chosen, but I wanted to highlight Black women’s stories and talk about Black mothers, so I chose these three because their sons are so often put in conversation together. When I entered my Ph.D. [program], I had just watched the “I Am Not Your Negro” documentary based on James Baldwin’s writings, in which he speaks about Malcolm X and MLK and of bearing witness to his friends’ work, and how he felt it was his job to speak the truth about what they were doing, what they were accomplishing for our country and our world, and from that point on I saw these three men as being in a constant conversation together. I felt their moms would add an incredible, beautiful layer to the story and help us understand how all three men approached their work so differently based on what they were taught in their own families.
All three moms were born within six years of each other and the sons were born within five years of each other. That allowed me to have some really cool intersections in terms of their stories and their timelines, about what was happening nationally and internationally, and how it played out so differently in each of their lives based on their own access to resources, education, etcetera.
It’s interesting that all three mothers taught their sons to command respect, something they didn’t necessarily receive themselves.
I absolutely agree. They were trying to push the country generally to their ideals and a vision of what was possible, because they saw so clearly that it wasn’t true in the United States. They understood they had value and worth, that they and their children deserved respect and dignity, but each day they also saw examples of that being denied to them as well as to their children. They were constantly focused on their vision for the future, helping the world realize their own ability to see humanity in everybody. And so they commanded respect in their own households and it’s very clear that the sons knew how influential their mothers were. All three of the sons later spoke about how powerful and important their mothers were within those family units. Away from their personal connections, people were not paying them the honor and respect they were due.
What would you like people to take away from reading your book?
The biggest thing is that we re-evaluate how we’re telling our stories and history so that it includes the people that are around all of us. So, less of this notion of unicorn figures who pop up out of nowhere and are messiah-like, as if they were just born with these inspiring ideas, but to see more realistically things that were part of generational movements. Then we get a better understanding of the continuance of the work, and of where we are as a nation, and the world.
Beyond that, we are specifically focusing on the stories we are intentionally erasing, and these are just three examples. Again, the sons spoke about their mothers often, and if you go back through their works with that lens, you’re going to see the moms so much more clearly because the sons had no intention of erasing their mothers. It’s up to us historians to pay more attention and stop taking for granted the work that women have been doing on our behalf, especially Black women and Black mothers.
Update: After publication of this article, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was announced as a participant in the event.