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Kickass Women In History: Louise Little, Alberta Williams King, Berdis Jones

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For this month’s Kickass Women in History, I’m highlighting the book The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation by Anna Malaika Tubbs. I was so impressed and moved by this story of three kickass women who have been largely ignored by history: Louise Little, Alberta Williams King, and Berdis Jones.

TW/CW for the book

Three Mothers is a nonfiction book about the mothers of three Black men who were vital leaders and voices in the Civil Rights Era. TW for descriptions of abuse, lynching, slavery, ableism, racism, sexism, and the murders of adults and children including infants, as well as references to rape and other forms of sexual violence.

The Three Mothers
A | BN | K
The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation is a compelling nonfiction that keeps a tight focus on Louise Little, Alberta Williams King, and Emma Berdis ‘Berdis’ Jones. In doing so, not only does the author inform readers about the lives of the three men, it also contextualizes their lives of resistance and pays homage to three remarkable women and how their experiences shaped them and their sons.

Louise Little, mother of Malcom X, was a passionate activist within the Garvey movement along with her husband. She raised her children to be activists until she was incarcerated in a mental asylum and her children taken to foster care. Louise was a passionate woman who was chased from town to town by White supremacists because of her activism. Many of her children recalled a night when her husband was away, and Louise (pregnant with Malcom at the time) faced down a mob of Ku Klux Klan men who threatened them. After twenty-five years of incarceration, her grown children were able to free her from the asylum and care for her until her death at the age of 92.

Louise and her husband, Earl

Berdis was a single mother when she had James Baldwin. She married a man named David Baldwin and had eight more children with him. Berdis encouraged James to write and stood up to David when a White teacher offered to take James to see plays and David refused the offer. Berdis’ insistence that James be allowed to go changed James’ life. He always expressed deep gratitude to his mother in his writing and his adult actions. She died at the age of 95.

Young Berdis holding James Baldwin’s infant brother, David

Alberta was the daughter of the head of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. She had a college education and, when she fell in love with Martin Luther King, Sr, she insisted that he complete his own education. When her husband took over church leadership, Alberta became essentially the co-head of the influential church. She also participated in civic and civil rights organizations before and after the birth of her own children. At the age of 69, after outliving two of her children, Alberta was shot and killed while playing the organ at her beloved church.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Henry Elkins, and Alberta outside her church.

The Three Mothers contextualizes the lives of civil rights leaders through their mothers. In the words of Malcom X’s brother, Wilfred:

“What people don’t understand was that Malcolm was part of a whole, that he was part of a particular experience, part of a tradition, part of a family that resisted the corner into which America tried to push them.”

The Three Mothers gives a sense of what that whole, that tradition, and that family looked like for Martin, James, and Malcolm. There is not a dry or dull moment in the book, although there are many extremely harrowing and heart-breaking moments as well as many happy and funny ones. There’s something incredibly lovely about reading that Martin Luther King, Jr., who went to college when he was only fifteen years old, wrote to his mother from college in a tone very different from his famous orations:

“Mother dear I want you to send me some fried chicken and rolls it will not be so much. And also send my brown shoes the others have worn out.”

These three women shared the experience of raising their children in a world that told their children, every day, that they were worth less than White people. They shared a fear that their Black sons would become the victims of violence. They struggled to help their children feel a sense of safety and pride. Here’s Wilfred again:

My mother would teach us at home when we came home from school. We would give her what we had learned that day, and she would then reteach it to us and give it to us in a way where it would do away with some of those negative things they had incorporated in there…and I never remember a time when we ever felt that because we were black, we were something inferior to anybody else.

The mothers all outlived at least one son. Malcolm X was murdered, as was Martin Luther King, Jr. One of Martin Luther King Jr’s brothers, Alfred Daniel (A.D.) King, died shortly after Martin under mysterious circumstances. James Baldwin lived to be 63 but died of cancer. The author continues to focus on the three women, showing how they live their lives after the deaths of their grown children. The book also discusses some of the challenges that Black mothers face in America today.

It was a joy to see these women get their due (finally) in the pages of the book. The book also paints a broader picture of why they and their sons became the people they became. It is an educational book and one that is deeply moving. It gives three extraordinary women the recognition they deserve.

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