Three Mothers Made the American Civil Rights Movement


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Illustration of a black woman with birds behind

Anna Malaika Tubbs shot in the head

Image provided by Anna Malaika Tubbs

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


  1. Anna Malaika Tubbs Three Mothers

    Anna Malaika Tubbs
    Three mothers
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Written by researcher Gates, doctoral candidate in sociology, and author Anna Malaika Tubbs Three mothers To bring together the distinct and intersecting stories of these women. It explores our tendency to understand women from the perspective of men in their lives, rather than seeing them for themselves. At the same time, Three mothers It is a poetic celebration: blackness, femininity, and how mothers shape the world by shaping their children.

In this excerpt from the book’s introduction, Tubbs contemplates what he makes Three mothers
Such a strong and personal work.


from Three mothers

Writing about black motherhood while becoming one gave me a much deeper perspective than I had been before. As my life and body transformed, it became important for me to tell the stories of Alberta, Birdies and Louise before they became mothers. Their lives did not start with motherhood. On the contrary, long before the thoughts of their children appeared in their minds, every woman had her passions, dreams, and identity. Every 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 affected the ways they would approach motherhood. Exposing them to racial and sexual violence from the moment they are born can guide them to the lessons they have learned for their children. Their thinking and creativity enhanced these qualities in their homes. The relationships they witnessed in their parents and grandparents were an inspiration for their special approach to marriage and raising children. Highlighting their role as mothers does not erase their identities as independent women. Instead, these identities informed their ability to raise independent children who would continue to inspire the world for years to come.

The lives of these women create a rich picture of the nuances of black motherhood. Yes, the three were mothers of sons who became internationally known, and their stories share many similarities, but their identities cannot in any way be reduced to one. Every woman carries different values, beliefs, talents, and traumas. I hope their rich differences 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 the work has been very challenging at times. Black motherhood in the United States is inseparable from the history of violence against blacks. American gynecology was built by torturing black women and experimenting with their bodies to test the procedures. Marion Sims, known as the father of American gynecology, developed his techniques by incising the vaginal tissues of enslaved women while being forcibly grasped. Refuse to drug them. François Marie Prevost, who is credited with introducing C-sections in the United States, perfected his procedures by slitting the stomachs 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 that we black women and our children face and our ability to resist it. Besides the normal fears all mothers face as they move forward through pregnancy and get close to their job, we black mothers know that we are risking our lives. Black women in the United States are more likely to die during pregnancy and during childbirth than other mothers. Besides the natural fear that all mothers feel when the painful thought of losing their children creeps into their minds, we black mothers feel a high level of anxiety. We know how different we see and treat our children in society, and our concerns are confirmed by articles and news stories that report on the violence that black children are constantly exposed to, whether at parties, in school, or in their local parks. This fear persists as our children become adults at risk even as they sleep in their beds, or are sitting in their own apartments, when they seek help, or when they are running.

Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were well aware of the dangers they and their children might face as black people in the United States, and they all sought to equip their children not only to face the world but to change it. Knowing that they were seen as “less than” and their children would be, the three mothers gathered the tools to thrive in hopes of teaching their children how to do the same. They found ways to give life and humanize themselves, their children, and thus our entire community. As history tells us, all of their children did indeed make a difference in this world, but they did so at a cost. In all three cases, the mothers’ worst fears became a reality: every woman was alive to bury her son. It is utter injustice that a lot of black mothers today could say the same thing.

Faced with this tragedy, every mother continues her journey to leave this world a better place than it was when she entered it. However, their lives continued to be largely ignored. When Malcolm X was assassinated, when Martin Luther King Jr.was killed soon after, and even when James Baldwin died of stomach cancer years later, their deeds were celebrated properly, but almost no one stopped asking their mothers’ grief. Confrontation. Even more painful for me is the fact that their fathers are mentioned, while their mothers have been largely erased.

I chose to focus on the mothers of the children. To be sure, black men were not the only leaders in the civil rights movement; Mothers of daughters of revolutions have also been forgotten. I have simply chosen three personalities who are often brought up together in conversation and who exhibit painfully strong erasures of identity in a mother / son relationship. Incidentally, I gave birth to a child, my amazing little son, and had 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 father’s footsteps” when he reaches a milestone causing more harm than people think. By choosing three mothers of sons, I do not want to erase other daughters or children. Instead, I make it clear that regardless of our gender, it all starts with the parents during childbirth.

In telling the stories of these three mothers, I hope to join others who have heeded Brave’s call, “Black women to independently conduct specific investigations into a society that systematically denies our existence through racial, sexual, and class persecution …” It is crucial to understand the layers of oppression. That black women face, while remembering that only studying oppression prevents us from honoring “the ways in which we created and maintained our own intellectual traditions as black women.” I pay close attention to this balance and testify to the many challenges that Birdies, Alberta and Louise faced while acknowledging their ability to survive, thrive and build despite them.

Louise, Berdis, and Alberta were all born within six years of each other, and all of their famous sons were born within five years of each other, marking lovely junctions in their lives. Since they were all born around the same time and had their famous sons around the same time, and the two of them died around the same time, I have thought about black femininity in the early 20th century, black motherhood in the 1920s, influencing the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The first of the three mothers was born in the late 1890s, and the last of the three died in the late 1990s. Their lives give us three incredible perspectives on an entire century of American history. By seeing the United States evolve through the lives of Birdies, Alberta, and Louise, it will leave you with a richer understanding of every World War, the Great Depression, the Great Immigration, the Harlem Renaissance, racial riots, police brutality, and welfare debates. , The effects of the policies each president proposed to see, and much more.

But their stories transcend a new understanding of American history, especially the 1960s civil rights movement. An ode to these three women is an ode to black femininity – perhaps black women today will also be able to find themselves in the life stories of Birdies, Alberta, and / or Louise, as I did.


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


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