IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

How these three unsung Black mothers indelibly shaped the civil rights movement

Author Anna Malaika Tubbs shares a rare look at the mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin in her book “The Three Mothers.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is embraced by his wife Coretta Scott King during a news conference at Harlem Hospital in New York, Sept 30, 1958. At left is his mother, Alberta Williams King.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is embraced by his wife Coretta Scott King during a news conference at Harlem Hospital in New York, Sept 30, 1958. At left is his mother, Alberta Williams King.Tony Camerano / AP file

While the accomplishments of civil rights icons Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin are enshrined in the history books, the lives of the three women who held enormous influence in their lives — their mothers — are less well-known.

Now the stories of those women have found their way into their own book, “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation,” by author Anna Malaika Tubbs. Tubbs joined “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski, Willie Geist and The 19th’s Errin Haines on the show Friday to share what she uncovered about these remarkable women.

“We can’t actually know these sons without knowing their mothers’ stories,” Tubbs said. “They are direct connections to these womens’ work before they became mothers and after … and their sons were also well aware of their mothers’ impact on their lives.”

Mrs. Alberta King Sr., mother of Martin Luther King.AP

Alberta King, the mother of Martin Luther King Jr., was a leader of the Ebenezer Baptist Church before her son famously served there. Born in Atlanta in 1903 and raised in the city’s prosperous Black community known as the “Sweet Auburn Historic District,” King raised her son with a strong faith in God and inspired his commitment to non-violent resistance. Her own parents also led the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church before her.

“[She] was this incredible social activist,” Tubbs said. “She believed that faith [was built on] social justice and if you’re a religious leader, you had to believe that you were fighting for the oppressed, that you were making sure you used your privilege to advance the cause forward.” She and her parents were some of the first members of the NAACP, and she participated in marches and boycotts.

"The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation," by Anna Malaika Tubbs. Amazon / Amazon

Louise Little, the mother of Malcolm X, was also an activist. Her deep commitment to Black independence, Black pride, and Pan-Africanism is reflected in her son’s life work. Born in Grenada in the late nineteenth century, Little never knew her father and was raised in a strong female household with her mother, grandmother and aunts. She was an early follower of Marcus Garvey’s Black Liberation Movement, which took root in her son’s own activism. Like Alberta King, a teacher, Little was highly educated and used her skills to the advantage of herself and others.

RELATED: This Mother's Day, we owe it to Black moms to finally address the maternal healthcare crisis

“She actually writes for the Negro World Newspaper,” Tubbs said. “She believes that you stand up for yourself [and] you stand up for your worth and you demand to be treated with the dignity and respect that you deserve.”

James Baldwin and his mother Emma Berdis Jones Baldwin at his 60th birthday celebration, UMass Campus Center, August 1984.Dr. Irma McClaurin

Emma Baldwin, who went by the first name Berdis, was also a writer who inspired the literary, poetic and theatrical works of her son, famed civil rights writer James Baldwin. Berdis Baldwin began expressing herself through writing and poetry from a young age, dealing with the grief of her mother’s death during childbirth. James Baldwin was born in New York City in 1924 amid the flourishing Harlem Renaissance.

“She believed that she helped other people through the darkness, through their own pain, through her writing,” Tubbs said. “She would give them these letters to help them see the world differently, to find more healing, to find more progress. And it’s no coincidence that her son becomes the famous writer James Baldwin who calls himself ‘the witness to the power of light.’”

While these three women lived inspiring lives, they also met tragic ends. Alberta King was assassinated in her church in 1974 while playing the organ during Sunday services. She had served as a source of strength to her family and community after her son Martin’s assassination and after the death of her other son under mysterious circumstances shortly thereafter.

For Louise Little, a few years after her husband died in a suspicious car accident, Tubbs detailed how a white male doctor diagnosed her with dementia and committed her to a mental institution against her will. Her children were placed in foster care.

RELATED: 10 books on Black motherhood to read in 2021

“The way we honor the mothers is to tell their stories,” Mika Brzezinski agreed with Tubbs. Calling these women the “Godmothers of movements,” “Morning Joe” co-host Willie Geist noted how these three women changed this country so profoundly.

“When I started writing this book, I was just interested in telling these stories in their own right,” Tubbs said. “I knew they were going to be interesting. I knew they deserved to be told.” She said she didn’t set out to talk about how each of the sons actions reflected on their upbringings.

“But what was shocking to me, the most surprising part of this research, was just how obvious the connections were, between the mothers and their sons. And it made it even more clear that we had erased them pretty intentionally,” Tubbs said. “We need to provide more context, reminds us where we are as a nation today and our connections to our history.”