Three Ladies Who Helped Their Sons Grow to be Civil Rights Icons

Tubbs digs and honors these traditions on the mothers and rightly notes that it is impossible to grasp the king’s relationship with the black church without first understanding “the basis of Alberta’s unwavering faith in the Lord.” Alberta was born within walking distance of Ebenezer Baptist Church and grew up watching her parents, Rev. Adam Williams and Jennie Celeste, organize strategy meetings, stand up against injustices, and become early members of the NAACP

Tubbs’ portrait is an intimate narrative intended to bind not just Little, King, and Baldwin, but all black mothers, including herself (she gave birth to a son while researching and writing the book). This leads to an inclusive tone that can be alternately comforting and upsetting: comforting when Tubbs writes about “our” shared experience as mothers; Jarring, when the narrative suddenly shifts to the second person “you”.

Even so, the hybrids that it highlights are beautiful – and more of them could have made history even more enriching. For example, after Malcolm’s murder, it was Baldwin who was commissioned to write the film adaptation of his autobiography. Later, shortly before his death in 1987, Baldwin worked on a project about Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Medgar Evers.

There are any number of places the reader craves for more anecdotes, more description, and most importantly, more mothers’ own voices. What did they say, feel and think at a certain historical point in time?

And what about Berdis’ gifts as a writer? The notes she wrote at Baldwin’s school were admired by his teachers and principals alike. According to her children and grandchildren, her birthday wishes were “some of the most beautiful ones that have ever been written”. Baldwin and his mother corresponded regularly during his years abroad. Tubbs, who conducts a phone interview with three of her descendants, never fully explains where these letters are. Perhaps historically the most neglected of the three, Berdis lived until 1999, 12 years after her son’s death, but she was largely silent about her own role in the story.

Louise Little and Alberta King also outlived their sons. For 26 years after Malcolm’s murder, little lived without writing a book or commenting on the assassination. King died at the age of 69, murdered while sitting at the organ in her beloved Ebenezer Baptist Church – yet even this shocking crime is too quickly covered in these pages: Tubbs offers no in-depth discussion of who shot her or why, six years after her son was murdered.

“It is only a disservice when we hide,” she writes on the last pages of the book. “When our children don’t know what we’ve been through and how we survived, when we allow others to define who we are.”

Try as she could, not even another mother can save such monumental erasures.

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