But when she dug into her research, something else happened.
“What was shocking to me was how obvious the connection was between the mothers and the sons. I wasn’t even looking for that, but it was so clear,” she said.
Consider this: Louise Little, mother of Malcolm, worked with Marcus Garvey, an early proponent of Black pride and economic independence. Alberta King, mother of Martin, was a lifelong religious and social justice leader at Ebenezer Baptist Church. And Berdis Baldwin, mother of James, was known in her community as a fantastic writer.
In “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation,” Tubbs weaves together the stories of these women’s lives, both as people independent of their children and as mothers whose progeny changed the world.
The women have broad strokes in common. They were born within six years of one another, between 1897 and 1903. All three married preachers. All three outlived their famous sons.
And all three were raised on islands — two literally and one figuratively — that gave them a sense of self they would pass on to their children. In an era now considered to be the nadir of the struggle for Black civil rights, their upbringings give a nuanced perspective of the period, Tubbs said, and show how Black people carved out space for rich, full lives, even amid the suffocation of Jim Crow.
Little, born Louise Langdon Norton, was born on the island nation of Grenada, a majority-Black British colony at the time, and one with a long history of resistance to white supremacy. Her skin was much lighter than her mother’s, and it was rumored she was the product of rape by a White man. Her grandparents, who helped raise her, still remembered where they were taken from in Nigeria and would have told little Louise their own stories of liberation, according to Tubbs.
King, born Alberta Christine Williams, came from the “island” of upper-class Black Atlanta, the only one of her parent’s children to survive childhood. Both of her parents were educated, and her father was the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, turning a tiny congregation into the powerful community it still is. Williams grew up surrounded by Black businesses, Black homeowners and successful Black parents who loved her.
James Baldwin was known as an urbane, lifelong city dweller — spending his life in New York, Paris and Istanbul. But his mother, born Emma Berdis Jones, came from a poor, rural community on Deal Island, Md. Her mother died of complications of her birth, her father was a waterman. The humble community’s reliance on the water would have given her father more freedom than many other poorer Black men at the time. She would have heard about Black Marylanders like Harriet Tubman, who was alive until she was 10, and perhaps even Frederick Douglass, according to Tubbs.
Each woman left home to pursue careers — Louise to Montreal and then New York, where she became an integral member of Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association; King to Virginia to pursue her education at Hampton University; and Baldwin, a talented poet, to Philadelphia and New York, where she cleaned houses and soon had a son.
Although each eventually married preachers with whom they had children, their husbands’ paths widely diverged. Earl Little moved the family from town to town, spreading the word of Garveyism and making enemies with local Whites, until 1931, when he died in a streetcar accident. Michael King (later Martin Luther King Sr.) took the reins of his father-in-law’s church, continuing its legacy. David Baldwin (James’s stepdad) preached fire and brimstone, abused alcohol and his family, and died prematurely, leaving his wife penniless with nine children.
Tubbs recounted tender stories of each mother supporting their sons in their youth, and how each son returned to their mothers after their success. Little’s story is particularly heart-rending; shortly after her husband’s death, her children were taken away from her and she was forced into a mental institution for 25 years. But Malcolm Little, later Malcolm X, and his siblings never forgot her. In 1964, they finally won her release and were reunited at a large family gathering, where he marveled at her memory and youthful appearance. He was assassinated less than a year later.
Although Alberta King may have had the “easiest” early life of the three women, Tubbs writes, tragedy followed her later years. She didn’t bury just one son, she buried two. Her son Martin was assassinated in 1968 at only 39 years old, and a year later, her other son, A.D. King, drowned in a swimming pool at 38. In 1974, she was assassinated inside Ebenezer Baptist Church by a follower of the Black Hebrew Israelites.
Although James Baldwin spent much of his life as a writer and activist away from his mother, they wrote one another constantly and were especially close. He lived longer than the other sons in the book, but when he died of cancer at 63 in 1987, Berdis also had to endure the pain of losing a child.
Tubbs became a first-time mother, to a son, while writing the book on these three women, which “felt like such a gift,” she said.
"Motherhood is so often viewed as something where we’re supposed to put everybody else ahead of us, where we have to be selfless in order to be called a good mom, or we also have to be these robots who get everything done for everybody else,” she said. “But something that I feel like I learned from Alberta, Berdis and Louise is that that’s actually not what motherhood should be about. … It instead should be the influence, the power, the strength that mothers bring to their children.”
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