What does it mean to be a mother? For some Black women, it means public activism that insists that their children who died at the hands of police mattered as individual human beings. That matters. In the United States, motherhood is idealized as a valuable and even sacred identity; it lends legitimacy when women take action on its behalf. Motherhood conveys power, however marginal, that can be used to sway American political thought on issues from women’s suffrage to drunken driving.

My forthcoming book on contemporary maternal activism discusses how Black mothers have long used their power to advocate on behalf of Black lives. In a tradition that goes back to slave narratives and the mother of Emmett Till, in the United States, Black mothers are leaders of anti-violence and police reform activism.

What is maternal politics?

In the 1990s, feminist philosopher Sarah Ruddick argued that when motherhood involves daily care and concern for another, it profoundly shapes one’s thinking. Women who use their identities as “mothers” toward political ends are both leveraging and reinforcing the belief that mothers’ experiences give them a unique — and uniquely female — platform from which to speak about issues that affect not only their children but all children.

When the mother and child relationship is invoked, it can transform views of those involved. While dying under Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s knee a year ago, George Floyd used his last breaths to call for his mother. The video of Floyd’s murder shocked the nation, covered by media outlets ranging from People magazine to Fox News. And when pundits and politicos focused on that deeply vulnerable and human cry for his mother, they conveyed a sense of someone worthy of empathy and respect.

To undermine the rhetorical power of Floyd’s last words, Chauvin’s defense team claimed he was referring to his girlfriend. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi reminded Americans of Floyd’s last words following Chauvin’s conviction, saying, “How heartbreaking was that? [To] call out for your mom, ‘I can’t breathe.’ ” The speech was criticized for Pelosi’s claim that Floyd “sacrificed” his life, but not for noting his cry for his mother.

Converting a mother’s love into political work

There’s a history behind putting a mother’s love to political use after a Black person is killed. Mamie Till understood and harnessed the power in the mother-child relationship. After her 14-year-old son Emmett was murdered in 1955, she insisted on an open-casket funeral that would force others to see the brutality done to her boy. Thousands lined up to pay their respects. Life magazine published photos of the funeral and of Mamie Till in mourning, igniting a national conversation about racialized violence that White Americans could no longer ignore.

Similarly, in 1979, Camille Bell made herself into a national media figure after her 9-year old son Yusuf was murdered, an early victim of a series in which 29 Black children and young adults were murdered in Atlanta. With other victims’ mothers, Bell formed the Committee to Stop Children’s Murder, demanding investigations into and justice for Black victims from poor communities, exhorting the city council and police to value these lives.

It’s not just biological mothers who have access to this power. Feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins notes that often Black women function as “othermothers,” caring for Black children in a hostile world shaped by centuries of American racism. These advocates can lay claim to a political position based on normative gender performance as caregivers that is not generally available to women outside of traditional reproductive roles.

Beyond activism to elected office

Using the same logic and tactics as Black maternal activists before them, some grieving Black mothers have pursued elected political power, including Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, and Lucy McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was killed by a White man in Florida, although Davis’s killer was convicted. Fulton narrowly lost election for Miami-Dade County Commissioner in 2020. McBath ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives and now serves Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Similarly, Princess Blanding’s brother Marcus-David Peters was shot and killed by police in May 2018 while having a mental health crisis. When she launched a third-party bid for governor of Virginia in late 2020, Blanding cited her brother’s death as the catalyst.

These candidates operate differently from other activists working around anti-Black violence, including Black Lives Matter, arguably the group that has generated the most attention from the news media and the conservative right. Founded in 2014 by three Black women who identify as queer and radical, BLM seeks to change the standards of who may speak and lead within liberation movements. Fulton, McBath and Blanding work alongside BLM and within the outlines of existing symbolism, power structures and institutions to make change while honoring the lives of their fallen loved ones.

Black mothers facing barriers

Yet Black mothers don’t easily access the cultural capital provided by motherhood. As scholars Melissa Harris-Perry and Dorothy Roberts describe, Black women’s lives are shaped by assumptions that they are defective mothers. Social discussions of Black motherhood have treated it as pathological, from a 1965 study by then-Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan that blamed Black single mothers for poverty and crime to renderings of Black women giving birth to damaged “crack babies” in the 1980s and ‘90s. Wealthy and powerful Black women aren’t excluded from judgment. For instance, my research shows that former first lady Michelle Obama caught flack from some White feminists for calling herself “Mom-In-Chief,” as when writer Linda Hirshman called Obama’s embrace of the domestic role “silly.”

Mother’s Day as a political marker

Just last month, in separate incidents, police shot and killed 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, Ohio, and Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C. Paula Bryant, Ma’Khia’s mother, immediately addressed the media, telling reporters that her daughter was a loving, honor roll student. Bryant insisted on humanizing her daughter to a world that might otherwise dismiss her death as justified, normal and unremarkable. Her voice joins that of other mothers demanding answers.

By next Mother’s Day, McBath, Fulton and Blanding may be joined by still other Black mothers seeking justice as well as elected office. This tragic sorority of women demand power inside the institutions that have yet to protect their children.

Aidan Smith is an administrative associate professor at Tulane University’s Newcomb Institute and author of “Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency” (Routledge, 2017).