The opening story in The Autobiography of Malcolm X tells of Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, facing down Ku Klux Klansmen who rode up to her house in Omaha, Nebraska, shouting for her husband to come out. Little, who was pregnant with Malcolm at the time, opened the door and told them her husband was away and she was alone with her three small children.
Anna Mailaika Tubbs also recounts this story in her book The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation, as an example of how Little, like her ancestors in Grenada, stood up to white oppressors.
A follower of Marcus Garvey, Little influenced who her son became, teaching him and his siblings about current affairs and “Garveyite principles of self-determination, self-reliance, discipline, and organization,” Tubbs writes in the book.
Exceptional men like Malcolm X didn’t spring up from nothing, and in her book, Tubbs makes the case for how Little, Alberta King, and Berdis Baldwin raised their sons to become extraordinary leaders. She tells the personal histories of these women—Little came from Grenada and followed her uncle to Montreal to work for the Marcus Garvey movement; King grew up in the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, which her parents led (and where newly elected Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock is now senior pastor); and Baldwin, originally from an island off of Maryland, was part of the Great Migration, leaving the South to go first to Philadelphia and later settling in Harlem during its Renaissance.
“I wanted to bring them out of the margins into the center,” Tubbs told The Daily Beast about the mothers. “I thought about writing about the wives or sisters of famous men, but I was really into the notion of the woman before the man.”
While writing the book, Tubbs became pregnant with her son, and she found it breathtaking to think about what these women who had their children in the 1920s went through in a country hostile to their existence.
“They found ways to humanize themselves and their children,” Tubbs said. “I was editing chapters with my son napping on my chest, and it was really deep and emotional.”
Tubbs says the mothers’ passions and hopes for the future directly affected who their sons became.
“Berdis Baldwin was an incredible writer who wrote poems and these letters to school that the teachers and principals talked about,” she said. “It’s similar to James Baldwin that even when he’s saying something so simple, it’s so poignant, and he inherited that directly from his mom. And when we think about Malcolm X as this radical figure who will do whatever it takes to express Black unity and Black pride, that comes from his mother. Marcus Garvey was this Pan-African activist who talked about the self-sufficiency of our community, and there’s direct connections between her organization and his, the Nation of Islam.”
As for Martin Luther King Jr., he wouldn’t have had the resources he did without his mother, Tubbs says.
“When she meets her husband, he’s considered almost illiterate and she has been to college, and she and her parents have built up Ebenezer Baptist Church, and when they get married, the husband moved in with her family. Their tradition is of going to Spellman and Morehouse, which MLK Jr. also does. And then he becomes the leader of the church with his father—all that is because of her and her family.”
Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult and Real American: A Memoir, has known Tubbs since she was a freshman at Stanford University and Lythcott-Haims was a dean there. She thinks Tubbs’ book is unique in putting a spotlight on these women and how they influenced their sons.
“Mothers are systemically overlooked,” she said. “We act like every amazing person is self-made, but these men had foundations in their childhood that no doubt strengthened them and emboldened them to become who they were.”
Tubbs, who got her master’s degree in Multidisciplinary Gender Studies at Cambridge University, where she is now a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology, knew she wanted to write something connected to the erasure of Black women. It’s an erasure she has experienced firsthand, she says, and particularly because of her husband Michael Tubbs’ position (until recently he was the mayor of Stockton, California, where he started a universal basic income program that got national attention); people tend to give him credit for anything connected to their son.
“We’ve been at events where I’m sitting next to him, and people come up to him and say, ‘Congratulations on the birth of your son,’” Tubbs said. “And I’m not someone who is quiet or reserved, so I’ll say, ‘I wasn’t aware that Michael could give birth. That’s amazing!’ Or they ascribe different characteristics to our son like, ‘He’s so strong just like his dad,’ or ‘He’s so smart like his dad,’ or ‘Maybe he’ll be mayor someday like his dad.’ That’s a constant with mothers being taken for granted, like there’s no way we’re the ones passing on strength or intellect.”
While doing research for The Three Mothers, Tubbs ran into that erasure in the lack of details about the lives of these women—particularly about their lives before they were wives and mothers, so she researched the circumstances surrounding their lives. She found out that Berdis Baldwin’s mother died while giving birth to her on Deal Island, an isolated place whose sparse population depended on the water for work. Grenada, Louise Little’s birthplace, was known for resistance to white oppression. A spot there called Leapers Hill marks where dozens of people jumped to their deaths rather than surrender to the French trying to colonize them. And Alberta King was born into a loving family in Atlanta, a place that later became known as “the Black Mecca of the South,” where her father was a co-founder of the NAACP chapter.
Along with personal histories, Tubbs includes some of the history of the United States during their lives, writing, for example, about how the country became more segregated under the administration of Woodrow Wilson, and about a progressive speech on race that Warren Harding gave while president. Tubbs writes about police brutality and life under Jim Crow to show the state of terror Black women often lived in. She also points out that after the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, it was his mother, activist Mamie Till, who made the decision to have an open casket at his public funeral so people could see her son’s bloated and disfigured body, which was a catalyst for the civil rights movement.
The inclusion of these elements in the book show what Black women have endured, Lythcott-Haims says.
“Through history, biography and analysis, we see the strength and resilience of Black women in the face of violence and degradation,” she said. “This is a love letter to mothering and to Black mothers, and how these women provided platforms on which their very famous offspring stand.”