The untold stories of the mothers of our Black History Month heroes

When I first found out I was going to be a mother, I was overtaken by conflicting emotions that came over me as soon as I held the positive pregnancy test in my hands. I stared down in disbelief while happiness grew in my heart and panic started to surge in my stomach. This was what I wanted, but I was also fully aware of how dangerous motherhood could be as a Black woman in the United States. I knew that Black women faced biases in healthcare systems, that we were more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth as a result, and I was up to date on the many instances of violence inflicted upon Black children. This knowledge terrified me. 

Thankfully, I was in the middle of writing a book, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, and a PhD dissertation on three incredible women whose lives gifted me comfort. Knowing their stories reminded me of my agency and power. These were three mothers who, long before I began studying them, provided their lessons of love and resistance to their children who would share such lessons with the world. We know some of their children’s names, but it is now time that we also know them and the lessons they continue to teach us, granting these three mothers their long overdue recognition.

Alberta King, mother of Martin Luther King Jr.

Alberta King was raised by the leaders of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. After learning from her parents about marches, boycotts, and grassroots organizing, she set her sights on becoming a teacher. She wanted to impart the wisdom she’d gained from her experiences with her entire community. She earned a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate but because the law stated that married women could not teach, she was forced to walk away from a formal career when she chose to start a family. A talented musician, she applied her skills to mentoring students through the church choir and she continued her activism. A mother of three, she taught her children the same strategies of resistance that her parents taught her. From Alberta I learned that I should not be afraid of my wisdom but that I should use my education to change the systems that cause my worry. 

Louise Little, mother of Malcolm X

Louise Little was influenced by her grandparents to always stand for Black independence and Black pride. Once slaves who fought for and secured their freedom, they raised their family on the revolutionary belief that Black communities could and should be self sufficient. Louise grew up in La Digue, Grenada, knowing how to grow her own food and how to make her own clothes. She was a bilingual scholar with dreams of joining an international fight for Black liberation. As a teenager she traveled on her own to Montreal, Canada, and became an important member of the Marcus Garvey movement. She bravely spoke against white supremacy and even physically stood up against the KKK. Malcolm X was only one of her eight children who she raised to be unapologetically proud of their Black identity. From Louise I learned the power of turning fear into impetus for courageous stances and actions. 

Berdis Baldwin, mother of James Baldwin

Berdis Baldwin’s life began with tragedy in Deal Island, Maryland, when she lost her own mother. Through this moment of darkness and pain she pulled from the love of her father and her siblings and became someone focused on light and healing. These qualities emanated from her and she put them into her writing. A brilliant mind, Berdis dreamed of more than her small town could offer her. She set her eyes on New York and arrived in the big city right in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. James Baldwin was the eldest of her nine children whom she taught to believe in the healing that their creativity could bring to a hurting country plagued by Jim Crow. From Berdis, I learned just how revolutionary love and happiness can be in the face of ugliness and hatred. 

Studying these three women felt like a warm embrace, a grounding through my inner hurricane of feelings. Their lives were far from easy; the challenges they faced as Black women and mothers in the 20th century were immeasurable, and I’m sure they experienced fear and panic too. Yet they also practiced agency, and they refused to be defined by the hatred they witnessed. Their lives were filled with joy and love.

I carry their lessons with me constantly. I reflect on the tug of war they encountered and the balance they found between knowing just how ugly the world could be towards them and their children and how they stood tall while teaching their children to do so as well. They gave me many gifts as I was expecting my first, and they continue to guide me as I now witness both my children grow, and the gift I hope to give them in return is recognition. I hope you’ll join me in sharing their stories and lessons just as much as we share those of their children.

About the Author

Anna Malaika Tubbs is a New York Times Bestselling author, advocate, and educator who is inspired to bring people together through the celebration of difference. Motivated by her mother’s work advocating for women’s and children’s rights around the world, Anna uses an intersectional lens to advocate for women of color and educate others. Her focus is on addressing gender and race issues in the US, especially the pervasive erasure of Black women and mothers which she explored in her recent release The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.

Watch Anna’s recent TED Talk about How Mothers Shape the World.

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