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What the mothers of 3 Civil Rights leaders have to teach Black moms today

Author Anna Malaika Tubbs unearthed groundbreaking material about (from left) Emma Berdis Baldwin, Louise Little and Alberta King; the mothers of James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (Irma McClaurin/X Legacy LLC/Getty Images via CNN)

(CNN) — Anna Malaika Tubbs learned she was pregnant with her first child in November 2019 while researching her first book.

Already, her relationship with the stories she was uncovering about Alberta King, Louise Little and Emma Berdis Baldwin had been intensifying, the more she learned about their revolutionary role in the fight for Black equality, respect and liberation.

The deep, emotional pull of new motherhood further amplified her connections to the women highlighted in “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.” Released in February, the book reveals the forgotten history of how these women withstood the dehumanization and death of Black children during a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement.

Tubbs, well aware of the Black maternal health crisis, felt almost immediately that she was “in a survival fight for us to make it through my pregnancy.” Given that Black women are at least three times more likely than white women to die as a result of pregnancy, she worried that biases about Black women could put her life in danger.

That was even before she began worrying about how to protect her child outside the womb.

Drawing upon the strengths of these matriarchs, Tubbs called upon herself “to be vulnerable about the fears that come with becoming the mother of a Black child.” She began thinking about the choices she and her husband would have to make. Do we try to protect our kids from the truth for as long as we can? Or do we expose them to the realities of what’s happening?

Through shining light on the lives of three mothers whose own choices spurred their children to transform a nation, Tubbs is not only lighting the path of her own motherhood journey, she also hopes to help us all better understand the nurturing that can change the world.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: You wrote that Martin Luther King, Jr., James Baldwin and Malcom X became “symbols of resistance by following their mothers’ leads.” How did their mothers’ teachings influence their sons’ writings, speeches and protests?

Anna Malaika Tubbs: I went into this research just wanting to talk about these three women in their own right. I was shocked to discover the obvious connections between the mothers’ and sons’ work. Without knowing about these women, we can’t know the whole story of these men.

Everyone who knows Berdis Baldwin’s writing says it has helped them think differently about their world and move through their own pain and darkness. James directly repeated his mother’s words when he called himself a “witness to the power of light” and truth.

Alberta King and her parents, the leaders of Ebenezer Baptist Church, were the ones who helped MLK, Sr., Alberta’s future husband, grow as an orator. She had been raised — going to marches, participating in boycotts and seeing her parents as the first members of the NAACP’s Atlanta chapter — to believe that social justice is a critical component of faith. Her son carried forward practices he had learned from his mother and maternal grandparents about standing up for your people.

Louise Little, meanwhile, had been raised to believe in Black independence, self-sufficiency and Black pride. Her grandparents and mother taught her not to rely on her White oppressor, so she learned how to hunt, grow her own food and perfect her own trade. At the age of 17, long before Malcolm X was even a thought in her mind, this very well-educated woman left her home country of Grenada to join the international Marcus Garvey pan-Africanist movement. She wrote for “Negro World” newspaper, fearlessly putting her name in print despite the dangers.

CNN: All three sacrificed their own pursuits for the sake of putting their children first. But you mention there’s also a type of freedom involved in making that choice. What have you come to understand about societal expectations about motherhood?

Tubbs: A lot of mothers describe suddenly being treated as a second-class citizen once they became a mom. Mothers are often congratulated for our selflessness. We often don’t get credit for everything we do for our families, both inside and outside the home. It’s as if a magical minion folded the clothes or put food on the table. We need to shift the mindset about motherhood, especially in the United States, giving mothers credit and recognizing the power and influence that motherhood holds.

My siblings and I always made fun of our mother’s insistence that we thank her. If I took for granted her driving me to ballet practice, she’d chide me. “I need you to acknowledge that I’ve done something for you. I’m your mother, I love you. But I’m not obligated to do any of these things.” Now I see the impact those lessons had on our lives.

The history of Black motherhood in the US adds complexity. Much of White, middle-class feminism has been concerned with how motherhood reproduces the patriarchy — how women are forced to divide our identities and not discuss our families at work, etc.

But many Black women actually approach our motherhood as an opportunity to recreate the world in a transformative and liberating way. Poet June Jordan said: “Children are the ways the world begin again and again.” Many times, we see it as less of a self-sacrifice to choose our children and more a recreation of the world through them.

CNN: How did Baldwin, King and Little protect their children through so much tribulation?

Tubbs: These three women never accepted societal circumstances as unchangeable. They saw how the world was, but they also saw how incredible, powerful, beautiful and brilliant their children were. They were determined not to let others’ perspectives or differential treatment define or limit them.

Through the way that I love them, these mothers decided, they’ll always know of their humanity, their worth and that they deserve dignity and respect. Beyond that, Alberta, Berdis and Louise continually committed to doing everything in their power to bring about their vision of a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect.

For me, and many Black mothers, having a child creates additional momentum to change whatever we can while we’re on this Earth, and to teach our children how to join us in that fight.

All three of these mothers talked to their children about what was happening in terms of Jim Crow. They each told their children, I’m worried for you. They never hid this truth. But they went on to share our people’s strategies for survival. As beautiful as that is, there’s a lot of pressure when we feel like it’s our duty to change the world. I remind myself that we’re not alone. We’re a part of a long line, a beautiful legacy of people who are fighting for this world to be better.

CNN: Your own identity as a mother has been informed by the process of creating this book. What advice have you gleaned from the experiences of King, Baldwin and Little?

Tubbs: All had family practices that I would love to emulate. Louise really took it upon herself to educate her children after school, re-teaching what they’d been taught by their White teachers. She also taught her kids how to garden, hunt and gather their own food so they could be self-sustaining.

Alberta and Martin Luther King, Sr. had family dinners every night that included elders in their community and welcomed anybody who needed a meal. MLK, Jr. and his sister, Christine King Farris, recalled these extended community dinners as important constants in their lives. I’d like to reproduce that as much as possible, because mothering should be a community effort that brings together more people who are invested in your child. That approach alleviates so much pressure from the Western notion that the mom is supposed to do it all.

Berdis had nine children with a husband who grew increasingly mentally ill and abusive. She recognized that how she treated her children was all she could control. All she could say was, I love you, I accept you, I forgive the people who have done me wrong. Over and over, her kids and grandkids whom I interviewed shared how she was entirely about love, light and forgiveness. I don’t know how somebody accomplishes that, but that’s a pretty powerful legacy to leave in the world.

CNN: So many societal forces stand in the way of mothers trying to raise children to feel loved so they can give and spread love in return. Yet resilience rises up in concert with struggle. How has your research fueled your own stamina as a mother?

Tubbs: This book has been such a gift for me. My son is just 18 months old, and my second child is due August 23. Each time I read through these stories, I gain new wisdom around motherhood, depending on what I’m going through that week. I know these women will continue to teach me.

One lesson that helps me through the exhausting moments is remembering that all these mothers willingly showed their vulnerability. Each one shares with her children something like, I’m worried, I am sad, I’m scared or I’ve been hurt. Instead of plastering a smile on her face all the time, sending a false message of I can withstand anything, each mother had conversations around her own feelings. This brought a complexity to their relationships.

Vulnerability isn’t something often celebrated in motherhood, but it helps children have a better understanding of the human condition. Surely this deep understanding of humanity is one reason that MLK, Jr., James Baldwin and Malcolm X were so powerful.

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