Anna Malaika Tubbs: The forgotten mothers of civil rights history MLK Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin are household names, but what about their mothers? This hour, author Anna Malaika Tubbs explores how these three women shaped American history.

Anna Malaika Tubbs: The forgotten mothers of civil rights history

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And welcome to our Mother's Day episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR: It seems to me that the only thing that the mother can do - the Negro mother - is to try from the beginning to instill in the child a sense of somebodiness.

ZOMORODI: You may recognize this as the voice of Martin Luther King Jr.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KING: This was what my mother tried to do. She made it very clear that in spite of these conditions, you are as good as anybody else, and you must not feel that you are not. And...

ZOMORODI: In this clip from a 1961 interview, he's talking about one of the most influential people in his life, his mother, Alberta King. But most of us know little about her or have even heard of her.

ANNA MALAIKA TUBBS: Yeah. It reminds me of the many different times, actually, that MLK Jr. gave credit to his mother but that scholars and journalists often ignored, and where he really believed that she was one of his primary inspirations in understanding, you know, the history of slavery, the history of the Civil War, the history of people telling Black people that they were not worthy of their humanity.

ZOMORODI: This is Anna Malaika Tubbs.

TUBBS: I am a sociologist and an author. And the name of my debut book is "The Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of MLK Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped A Nation."

ZOMORODI: Anna spent years researching these three mothers - Alberta King, Louise Little and Berdis Baldwin - women who shaped American history, yet whose stories are seldom told.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TUBBS: Every year, around January 15, the world rightfully celebrates the birth of the great Martin Luther King Jr.

ZOMORODI: Here's Anna Malaika Tubbs on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TUBBS: Yet virtually no one has stopped to consider who else was in that room that day in 1929. As if, somehow, MLK Jr. birthed himself.

(LAUGHTER)

TUBBS: I toured the location where he was born - a charming, quaint, two-story home in Atlanta. And while it was an honor to even be there, I left feeling frustrated by the tour guide's script. Of course, MLK Jr. was the center of most of the tales. And then came stories about his father, the inspiring Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. But what frustrated me was the lack of attention being paid to his mother, Alberta Christine Williams King, even though this was actually her childhood home first and the home where she later birthed her children in a room on the second floor.

The thing is that she's been erased. And despite the fact that she was so clearly influential in her son's journey, we have kept her from our shared knowledge and understanding because she doesn't fit this more patriarchal notion of who the heroes and the leaders of our stories are. And therefore, she's been swept under the rug. But it's time that we correct that. It's time that we give her her due and we celebrate her influence not only on her son, but on our entire world.

ZOMORODI: So, Anna, we're dedicating this hour to hearing the previously untold stories of these three women. But first, I have to ask, why did you choose to spend so much time researching the mothers of MLK Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin? - because I'm guessing there are many other mothers you could have chosen to focus on.

TUBBS: Yeah. It was really a narrowing down process. I started with a really large idea. I was inspired by Margot Lee Shetterly's "Hidden Figures." I love, love, loved her work. But I was really angered by the work because it was the first time I was hearing these women's names that she'd researched.

And so I said, I'm going to be somebody who finds other hidden figures, other people who have intentionally been erased from our history. And I knew I was going to talk about Black women. And then I thought about the fact that my mother always spoke to me about the importance of mothers in every society. She was a lawyer. She advocated for women's rights, both in the U.S. as well as abroad.

And so I thought, OK, I'm going to talk about mothers because they're being overlooked. They're not being celebrated in the way that they deserve to be. I thought about the civil rights movement because we so often come back to it in our policy discussions, but we also speak about it from a pretty male perspective. It's a lot harder for us to name anyone else other than male leaders in the civil rights movement. And so I said, I'm going to play on that patriarchy. I knew strategically, if it had some more of these famous names, more people would walk away knowing three Black women's stories.

ZOMORODI: Well, that sounds like a lovely goal. So let's get to know these women, starting with Alberta King. Tell us about her, where she came from and what her early life was like.

TUBBS: Alberta King - well, Alberta Williams, originally - was born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1903. And she was born to the leaders of Ebenezer Baptist Church. So her parents established this church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I THANK YOU, LORD")

BARBARA LAMBERT: (Singing) I thank you, Lord.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I thank you, Lord.

TUBBS: And they believe that Christian faith should always be intertwined with social justice. And so this is what she's raised to believe. She participates in marches at an early age. She participates in boycotts. Her and her parents are some of the very, very first members of the NAACP.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I THANK YOU, LORD")

LAMBERT: (Singing) You set my soul free.

TUBBS: And she believes that she can use her education. She has this privilege of an education to advance freedom causes forward for her entire community. So she gains a bachelor's degree and a teaching certificate, and she has a dream of becoming an educator in the Atlanta public school system.

ZOMORODI: So she's well-educated. She's - she is well aware of the role protest plays in hopefully getting rights for Black people. But she doesn't end up having a career.

TUBBS: No. Yeah. At the time, there was a law - it was called the Marriage bar - that stated that if women decided to get married and in turn start a family, that they could not work outside of their home. And so when Alberta falls in love with the man of - a man by the name of Michael King originally, who later will change his name to Martin Luther King, she really has to make the decision whether or not she's going to start a family and walk away from her career or continue to pursue the journey that she's been educated for.

ZOMORODI: And she decides to have a family.

TUBBS: As we know, she decides to have a family. She decides to get married and have children. But this isn't really the end of her teaching. I really feel like Alberta - the word that I would use to describe her is balance. She's both encouraging of them and very loving of her children. When they are scared or confused, they come to her, and she sits with them and holds them tightly and says, you know, you are worthy of love. You are worthy of dignity. But she's also very stern. They had very serious rules in their household. They had a schedule and a routine that they followed every single day. They went to school. They came back. They sat down at the table. They read the Bible. They did their homework. They ate dinner together.

So she was also clear that they would follow her rules while balancing that with that love and that warmth. And never is she saying you need to go out and become a famous leader. But instead, she's telling them that we as Christians believe equity and justice are possible on this earth and that this is what God's vision is. And so she's telling them how you do that, that you can achieve justice and equality, and your role is to try to do that here.

ZOMORODI: We've heard people in the past say that Martin Luther King Jr. got his oratory skills from his dad. But what do you think he got from his mom? Is there something - I don't know - when you when him in videos, when you see him giving speeches, what does it make you think about Alberta?

TUBBS: Everything about Alberta and everything about MLK make me think of the other.

ZOMORODI: Really?

TUBBS: Yeah. When I was doing the research, I wasn't even trying to make these direct comparisons of, you know, because Alberta did this, MLK did this, but then it became unavoidable. It was so clear that this was her son. She believed in marches. She believed in boycotts. She - everything we celebrate him for is what she believed in. She was his closest confidant. He called her almost every day to check in with her when he wasn't with her.

When he was with her, he would sit with her and try to talk about what was happening in the world and in his direct community and moments where he's experiencing racism. He would go to Alberta because he felt like she understood him better than anyone else. Of course, this academic that he is, this is directly after Alberta. And it's not to say that his father didn't also inspire him, but it is almost as if they are the same person, Alberta and MLK, if you read their descriptions and their degrees and their passions and their upbringing.

ZOMORODI: One thing you do say, though, is that as her son got more and more famous, she really worried about him. She worried about his safety a lot.

TUBBS: Yes. Yes, she was. She was always concerned, even to a point where she was on bed rest at one point, she was so worried. It was taking a physical toll on her. And this is a reminder to us that MLK Jr. was a person, a human being. This was her son. You know, he wasn't this deity. He wasn't just the character in our history. He was a human being. And he was risking his life for the work that he was trying to bring to life and trying to use to help all of us. But this wasn't something that was easily done. And when you see it from the perspective of his mother, you can really fully appreciate his humanity and his own fragility.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

KING: ...Of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

ZOMORODI: On August 28, 1963, Alberta and her family watched Martin Luther King Jr. deliver the "I Have A Dream" speech on television. And here's Anna reading a passage from her book.

TUBBS: (Reading) Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last. These were the teachings with which Alberta had raised her son. Martin's family sat in silence as pride welled in their hearts and tears welled in Alberta's eyes. They knew the speech would go down as one of the most powerful in history. Their quiet astonishment was suddenly interrupted by the phone. Call after call came through from loved ones all around the country sharing their excitement and joy. These were the moments that balanced Alberta's deep fear for her son's life with happiness and hope. He was so clearly doing what God called him to do, and she would never stand in the way of that.

ZOMORODI: In a moment, the day Alberta King's worst fear came true, and another assassination we don't hear much about. On the show today, Anna Malaika Tubbs, author of "The Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, And James Baldwin Shaped A Nation." I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. My guest today is the author of "The Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, And James Baldwin Shaped A Nation," Anna Malaika Tubbs. Thank you so much for being with us.

TUBBS: Thank you for having me.

ZOMORODI: So on a before the break, we were talking about Alberta King, the mother of Martin Luther King Jr., and how she shaped our history in part by how she raised her son. But as the civil rights movement gained steam in the '60s, the situation got more and more dangerous for him, and she became really worried about his safety. And, of course, her worst nightmare did come true in 1968.

TUBBS: Yeah. All of this worry that she's had for years and these fears that she has for her son's life come true. You know, the worst news that she each day is worried she's going to hear...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT F KENNEDY: Very sad news for all of you and, I think, sad news for all of our fellow citizens.

TUBBS: She finally does hear over the radio that this - our civil rights icon, this kind of prince of peace has been killed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: Martin Luther King was shot and was killed tonight in Memphis, Tenn.

TUBBS: And in the moment, from her husband's description in his autobiography, he says that she was almost quiet and that tears were just streaming down her face.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: I pray that his family can find comfort in the memory of all he tried to do for the land he loved so well. I ask every...

TUBBS: I can only imagine the thoughts that are going through her mind. But we also have to remember she's aware that people are watching her. She's a leader in this church. She has been since she was a little girl. And she knows and is fully aware that she has to also think about what everybody else is going through and how she needs to show up for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Alberta King lived until 1974, and I did not know how she died, Anna. And I've asked a lot of other people, did you know? And they said they'd never heard this story. Do you mind sharing it with us?

TUBBS: Yeah. It's an extremely shocking moment - completely unexpected, of course. She's playing the organ at church, as she always does every Sunday, and it's a joyous day. But a man stands up in the middle of Alberta playing, and he says, I'm taking over today. He starts shooting. He later tells us and kind of tells the media, the news reporters, that he wanted to kill MLK Sr. This was his original goal. But on that day, he decided that since Alberta was closer to him, he was going to shoot her first. And Alberta dies at the hospital.

ZOMORODI: She sat in the back while playing the organ in that very famous church in Atlanta.

TUBBS: Yeah. The church that she grew up in, the church that her parents established, the church that her husband becomes pastor of, that her son does - both of her sons do - this is also the place where she dies.

ZOMORODI: I mean, incredibly tragic ending. And yet, the way you write about Alberta, there's certainly a calm joy to her life. What do you think are the - what do you think is her legacy, not just her son's?

TUBBS: Yeah. Her legacy is one where she reminds us over and over again that there is, in her belief, a calling on our lives and that there is a reason that everything happens and that that doesn't erase, you know, our human concerns of fear or worry but that we also have to follow that calling. That's what she believed. And so I think one of my favorite parts of the book, although it's very painful to read, is her obituary and the words that are read about her and that her music is living on, her message is living on through her students, through her daughter and through her grandchildren.

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ZOMORODI: Let's turn now to the second mother in our trio. Louise Little was the mother of Malcolm X. She was actually born in the Caribbean, in Grenada. And, Anna, I knew very little about this Caribbean island. But it was - it very, very much formed who Louise was and who Malcolm X - or Malcolm Little, as he first was known - became. Tell us about Louise.

TUBBS: Yeah. I like to start in the book by noting that these women's lives don't start just the moment that they're born but that this is all about generational knowledge and this generational celebration. And especially in the case of Louise, her island of Grenada is filled with histories of resistance to white supremacy, resistance to colonization. And so one primary story is the Carib Indians are - well, there's colonization coming, and they're aware of this. And instead of surrendering, a group of them jump from this hill to their death. And they're making the statement that they would rather die than live in captivity.

ZOMORODI: This is legend or history?

TUBBS: This is history. This is real. The hill is called Leaper's Hill in commemoration of their act that they would rather jump than to surrender or to live in captivity. And so it's a story that's told over and over again around Native communities and Black communities in Grenada, all about you do not live in oppression.

ZOMORODI: OK. So she's growing up in a culture that really reveres independent thinking and hearing stories about this fierce spirit. And she, Louise, actually moves as quite a young woman, around the age of 20, to Montreal and then the U.S. Was that atypical of young women at the time?

TUBBS: Very. I mean, we also even have to talk about her grandparents, the fact that they were at one point enslaved, and they were able to gain their freedom. And so they also believe in Black self-sufficiency, Black independence. They're telling her this. They are Nigerian, and so they are also bringing with them West African stories of leaders who have fought against slavery. And so she grows up with all of these notions of you stand up for yourself by any means necessary. You fight for Black pride and Black love. And she wants to join this international fight. And so she joins this international movement for Black lives, which is called Garveyism. It's based on Marcus Garvey's beliefs in Black nationalism. And she writes for his Negro World newspaper. So she's also very unafraid of putting her name in writing and saying, this is what I believe.

ZOMORODI: So does her career also get derailed - or, I shouldn't say derailed - but does it get cut short by marriage?

TUBBS: Interesting. I wouldn't say it gets cut short by a marriage with her. She meets a fellow organizer at one of their meetings and falls in love with him. I think I would say she falls in love with the fact that he is also unapologetic about his feelings of Black self-sufficiency and Black nationalism. And Marcus Garvey takes note of them and sends them very strategically to cities in the Midwest that are already kind of showing that they want to fight, and they're responding to white violence with their own presence and their own strength. And so the goal is to send Louise and Earl, her husband, to these places to further inspire this revolutionary spirit. I mean, it's part of their strategy that they'll be known by the KKK and by groups like the Black Legion, which is...

ZOMORODI: Wow.

TUBBS: ...Similar to the KKK. So that's what they're there to do. They're there to kind of be like, yeah, we're here. They're agitators.

ZOMORODI: It's almost like missionaries, but even riskier.

TUBBS: Very risky. It's very risky what they're doing and also intentional. But that puts them in danger multiple times.

ZOMORODI: Tell me about that. Tell me about the dangers that they faced.

TUBBS: Yeah. Their house is burned down at one point. When Louise is pregnant with Malcolm, she is confronted by a mob of white men who come to her house and are trying to intimidate her, especially in the absence of her husband. They're trying to get information. They're trying to scare her. And she walks outside, stands tall. She tells them she's not afraid of them. She shows that she's pregnant, which is really something that - you know, it wouldn't have stopped them from hurting her. There's no respect for Black women and Black pregnant women, as I detail in the book - many examples of that. But she's there, and she's showing her other three children that this is what she wants them to do in the face of hatred. She might risk her life in doing so, but it's more important to stand tall rather than accept these notions of white supremacy.

ZOMORODI: OK. So these stories about his mom, her demonstrations of putting her life on the line for her race - they clearly shape Malcolm Little, who becomes Malcolm X. But he's also growing up around a lot of violence - right? - and tragedy. And he believes - most people believe - that his father may have been killed by white supremacists as well.

TUBBS: Yes. So this is the next attack in a series of attacks against the Little family. And it happens - one night, Malcolm witnesses his dad leave. And the next thing he knows, he's waking up, and there are police officers at the house, and they're talking to Louise and taking her to identify her husband's body. The newspaper says that this is an accident. But everybody who knew the Little family, especially the Black community members in Lansing, all believe that this was murder. And she has to identify his body and then go home to her seven children at the time.

ZOMORODI: So here's Malcolm. He has six siblings and now a single mother. What is it like growing up for him, and how does she care for her family in the '30s?

TUBBS: Yeah. After her husband is murdered, Louise does her best to maintain her independence. But it's also legal at this point for white welfare officers to enter her home whenever they want to without permission. And she hates this. She hates that they just can come in, examine her, judge her, judge the way she's raising her children. Again, we have to remember this continued attack on her and her family because they are these radical activists.

It's well known that they are radical in their approach. And they're teaching their children also to believe in their same ideals. And so these welfare officers are pulling their children aside and telling them - asking them questions about Louise, saying that she's acting a little crazy, starting to plant these seeds in their minds that their mother is unwell. She does experience, I would say, depression. She's sad. But a white male physician was sent to evaluate her. And in his doctor's note, he says that she is imagining being discriminated against. This is a quote, verbatim. "She's imagining being discriminated against." And this is enough for her to be put away in an institution against her will for around 25 years of her life.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

TUBBS: And each of her children are taken from her and placed into foster homes.

ZOMORODI: Do we know what her life was like in the institution?

TUBBS: There's very little that we know. And we can only make informed guesses, really, because the record of her time there is mainly kept by the state writing letters to the hospital and the hospital responding. So they're asking, how is she doing? And the hospital responds by saying things like, she continues to resist us. She continues to resist us. And this hospital was known for weird experimental treatments, which, I mean, would have been kind of the case in the 1930s and '40s for mental institutions. You know, for so long, it was, we should lock you away and kind of put you away. So especially for a Black woman, a Black immigrant woman, put in a facility that's known for experimental treatment, I can only imagine what it was like for her to be there.

ZOMORODI: Yeah - and only imagine what it was like for him. I mean, this is - you're describing a pretty traumatic childhood. Both parents are out of the picture. And later, Malcolm X does end up spending time in prison. Do we know how much he traced his troubles back to when his mother was taken away?

TUBBS: Yeah. He even says he starts to forget the vocabulary that she's taught him. He starts to feel even more anger. We know this kind of famous story about the teacher who says he can't become a lawyer because he's - that's not a good dream for him to have as a Black boy. So he doesn't have that love that he used to return to that would have said, don't listen to that teacher. Like, we believe in you.

So it helps us to better understand why somebody who has turned to this life of crime, who is now in prison, starts to see a homecoming in the lessons of Elijah Muhammad and starts to see direct connections in this Black nationalist approach that is all about Black pride, all about Black independence. And there are letters that I include in the book where his brothers say to him, remember what mom taught us? And he says back to them, all of our accomplishments are our mom's. She was the first to teach us about this years ago. So in a way, it's not really, like, a brand-new identity for him. He's just returning back to who she taught him to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MALCOLM X: Every case of police brutality against a Negro...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

MALCOLM X: ...Follows the same pattern.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Right.

MALCOLM X: They attack you, bust you all upside your mouth, and then take you to court and charge you with assault.

ZOMORODI: So while Louise was in this institution, Malcolm X becomes the voice of the Nation of Islam.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MALCOLM X: My brothers and sisters, we have to put a stop to this.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: That's right.

MALCOLM X: And it will never be stopped until we stop it ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: That's right.

ZOMORODI: But also, during that time, you write that the Little family was petitioning for Louise's release and that eventually, in 1963, they were successful. But she came home to a whole new world, right? The civil rights movement was in full swing, which her son had had a lot to do with. But as we know, tragedy was just around the corner.

TUBBS: Exactly. When Louise is released, it's only several months later after that, that Malcolm X is assassinated.

ZOMORODI: What effect does it have on Louise? She's not spent much time with her son since he was a child.

TUBBS: Yeah. Those years were robbed from them, and I can't say for sure what effect this has on her because she becomes such a private person. She doesn't comment on it. So this is a really extreme change for her going from somebody who wrote in the Negro World newspaper, who was very loud and proud about her activism. Then after these 25 years of being put away, she's changed, and she starts to more so prioritize her presence within her family, meaning her many grandchildren that she now has after 25 years. And so in the case of Betty and Malcolm, their daughters know her better than Malcolm ever did, and they get to hear her teachings. The same knowledge she passed on to Malcolm and her children, she passes now to her grandchildren. And her granddaughters really see themselves as their grandmother's keeper.

ZOMORODI: So I'm hearing you talk about her, and my takeaway is this - wow, this woman - I mean, tragedy after tragedy. But she was also always so willing to put herself on the line. You didn't know her, but what is the sense of Louise Little that you are left with after spending so much time researching her?

TUBBS: I am left with a sense of power. Power is the word that comes to me the most. She was so incredibly powerful. And I don't think that these moments that happened to her - I mean, the institutionalization was incredibly shocking in terms of the length of time. But I don't necessarily think that they would have surprised her. She was very strategic. She knew she was risking her life. She was willing to. And there's such power in that.

And I often say, you know, for those who like these kind of stories of these radical women, Louise Little is one of those. Like, she's one you need to know and know her story and ask, how did she do this? This is incredible. To live for another 25 years after her institutionalization, to live until 1991 - what a powerful life.

ZOMORODI: Coming up - the story of a woman whose son grows up to be the award-winning novelist James Baldwin. We'll get to know Berdis Baldwin. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stick with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we're spending this episode with sociologist Anna Malaika Tubbs, who spent years researching three mothers who helped shape American history. Anna, so far, we've heard about Alberta King and Louise Little, the mothers of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. And now we're going to talk about Berdis Baldwin. She is the mother of the famous poet, playwright, novelist James Baldwin, but also an artistic soul herself. Tell us about Berdis, where she was born and her early life.

TUBBS: Yes, it's my pleasure. Berdis Baldwin was born in Deal Island, Md., in 1902. And she lost her mother at a very young age. And in this moment of, really, pain and tragedy, Berdis holds on to the love of her siblings and the love of her father and becomes somebody who's actually really positive and optimistic and thinks about how you can move through pain and move through the darker times in your life to find light and to find healing. Everyone mentions the word love when they talk about Berdis - her grandchildren, her children - love, love, love. And she used her writing to help people find that light even through the hardest of times and very specifically to help them confront Jim Crow and its violence and the pain that it caused. And she teaches people how to do that through these letters that she would write to them.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. Tell me more. When you say her writing, you don't mean as a published author.

TUBBS: No.

ZOMORODI: What do you mean?

TUBBS: Yeah, I mean through her letters that she would gift to everybody around her. So apparently, she really had an incredible memory and would remember everybody's birthdays, even though she didn't keep a calendar. And the gift that everybody looked forward to from her was a letter filled with her lessons on life.

ZOMORODI: So early 1900s, she moved from Maryland as part of the Great Migration...

TUBBS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...The movement of Black people moving from the South to the North. Tell us about where she goes and why.

TUBBS: Yeah. She first goes to Philadelphia for a little bit and then finds herself in New York in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. And her motivation for leaving her island is that she believes that there's more in the world out there for her. She believes that maybe she can make it as a writer. Maybe there's something waiting for her outside of her little, small town. And she arrives there, like I said, in the middle of this incredible movement that will change the course of American history, really, and our understanding of Black humanity, Black relationships, Black love, Black culture more generally, American culture more generally. And we just have to picture this creative mind, this young woman, a teenager, arriving in the middle of this epic moment in history.

ZOMORODI: She gives birth to James in 1924. He is her first child. What were the circumstances?

TUBBS: We don't know necessarily who his father was, but we know that Berdis is a single mom. She gives birth to him at the hospital in Harlem, and she gives him her maiden name. So he's originally James Arthur Jones.

ZOMORODI: So she raises him on her own at first, but she ends up marrying a man named David Baldwin, who is a minister in New York City. But this was not an easy marriage, right, Anna?

TUBBS: No. They are part of the Great Migration, meaning they left as individuals. So they're far from their support systems. They don't have a lot of money. And unfortunately, David Baldwin also is suffering from a mental illness that his family is not aware of for years. And his preaching even starts to turn into something that's filled with anger. And he's consumed by wrath that he's being treated as less than human as a Black man. He's not being given the opportunities that he deserves to try to make ends meet for his family. And this becomes overwhelming for him. And he takes that out on his wife and on his children.

ZOMORODI: Particularly James, though, right?

TUBBS: Absolutely. James being his stepchild, he would often criticize him, hit him, call him terrible names. And James, of course, is affected by this. And he starts to feel that these things might be true. He starts to see himself as ugly and unworthy. And Berdis is constantly combating that and making sure that she helps him to see that that's not true, despite what his stepfather is telling him day in and day out.

ZOMORODI: But David Baldwin ends up dying. Is that right?

TUBBS: Yes, he passes away. And before that happens, Berdis asks James to go and see him and to forgive his stepfather for all of the pain that he's caused him because she doesn't want him to hold on to that hatred - kind of going back to her essence of love and light. No matter the circumstances, she wants her son to feel that release so he can find healing even after his stepfather passes. She's also pregnant with her ninth child at this time as well.

ZOMORODI: So this leaves a huge impression on James. And he seems to sort of take what his stepfather and his mother go through and put it into his narratives because he really sees that they are just one of the - one example of what an entire generation of Black Americans were going through. I'd love to play a clip from an interview James Baldwin did in 1971 where he talks about his family's situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES BALDWIN: I had to watch my father and what my father had to endure to raise nine children on $27.50 a week when he was working. Now, when I was a kid, I didn't know what the man was going through at all. I didn't know why, you know, he was always in a rage. I didn't know why he was impossible to live with. But I had not had to go through yet his working day. And he couldn't quit his job 'cause he had the kids to feed. And the kid's belly's empty, and you see it. You know, and you got to raise the kid. You know, you got to raise the kid. And your manhood is being slowly destroyed hour by hour, day by day. Your woman's watching it. You're watching her watch it, you know. And the love that you have for each other is being destroyed hour by hour and day by day. It's not her fault. It's not your fault. But there it goes because the pressures under which you live are inhuman.

ZOMORODI: It sounds like he has a lot of empathy for his stepfather...

TUBBS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...And his mother, although he's not mentioning her quite as much.

TUBBS: Absolutely. And I think that really - that empathy does come from Berdis trying to help him understand his stepfather's condition. And we have to also imagine he's - him as a little boy, witnessing his father be incredibly abusive and him turning to his mom for answers and love and comfort. And she's still this essence of, we have to forgive. We have to find love. We have to find happiness. And when I hear James speak now, after studying her for so many years, her presence is so palpable in his words.

ZOMORODI: Baldwin ends up moving to Paris in 1948. It's the end of the World War. And she's - you write that she's sad, but she understands because he - in order to keep that brilliance alive, he needs to go explore it in a way he cannot do in the United States.

TUBBS: Yeah. And I think we can see some similarities and parallels to her as a young girl thinking, my city can't give me these opportunities. I'm going to try to take a chance somewhere else. I'm going to leave my father. And then her son is coming to her saying, you know, I've tried. I've tried the work thing. I've tried to do the factory work. I've tried to support you in that way, but it's killing me. You know, he's so depressed when he's away from his writing. And then he has this opportunity. He has a writing fellowship. He has an opportunity to go out of the U.S. and pursue this. And she knows that that's what he needs to do. And she's never going to hold him back in ways that she was held back from doing what she wanted to do. She can see her dream coming alive through him, and she's proud.

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ZOMORODI: Baldwin really finds his voice in Paris. He embraces his homosexuality. He becomes this prolific writer. And unlike Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., he lives into his 60s. But then he gets sick. And just like the other mothers, Berdis is faced with the reality of losing her son.

TUBBS: Yes. So James Baldwin was diagnosed with stomach cancer, and he was living in Paris at the time. And we know that she has a phone call with him just a couple of days before he passes - the final time they're going to speak to each other. And this was kind of one of his final wishes was that he could hear his mother's voice before he passed. And she is stunned that she lived past her son. But there is this sense of peace. Again, we have to remember - Berdis' essence is love and peace and light. And so she sees, in ways that are so powerful, the work that he has engendered for the whole world and the ways in which he's changed this world.

Berdis lives between 1902 until 1999. And so much of this - the movement was inspired by her son and the gift that she gave him in writing, and that is a beautiful thing. And so she uses that to think about James Baldwin's nephews and nieces and thinking about the next generation of their family and remembering who he was to them, but even more so who he was to the world.

ZOMORODI: So she lived until 1999. It's not that long ago.

TUBBS: Not at all.

ZOMORODI: What do you feel like she left behind then? Obviously, her son's writings live on.

TUBBS: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: But what is her sort of trail, as it were?

TUBBS: I would say she, of course, leaves behind her son's works but also her children, many of whom are still alive, and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Now she, because she lived until 1999, knew her grandchildren well. They believe that she was one of if not the most important person in their family. When I approached them saying that I wanted to write this book and wanted to research Berdis, they said it's time that the world know who the most important person in our family was.

(LAUGHTER)

TUBBS: And their stories are just filled with sitting down with her at meals and her cooking for them and her joking and the birthday letter that they were going to receive and how they've now continued this tradition for her. And it wasn't just James who she encouraged to be creative. All of her children were artists in some way, and she is the one who keeps showing them what forgiveness looks like, what peace and happiness look like, what hope look like in this world. When James Baldwin says he's a witness to the power of light, it's not just a random saying. He's directly quoting his mom. And they are always trying to find ways to keep honoring this tradition that she passed to them, in terms of just seeing the world differently, and it's all about the stories that we're telling ourselves.

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ZOMORODI: As we wrap up our hour together, Anna, I want to make sure to ask you about the subtitle of your book. It's called "Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of MLK Jr., Malcolm X And James Baldwin Shaped A Nation." It is not called "How Three Mothers Shaped The Men Who Shaped A Nation." You put these women front and center - not behind the scenes in any way.

TUBBS: Yeah. Long before their sons were thoughts in their minds, they were doing the work that their sons became famous for. But also, what that means for all the women and mothers who are being forgotten and erased - and this book is just an example of three who we should have known all along, and they are also reminders for us of who we are erasing right now.

ZOMORODI: So as a sociologist, how do you think of these stories in context of the last few years here in the United States and the sort of real race reckoning that once again we are going through, and I suppose how we talk about black mothers right now?

TUBBS: Well, first, when I started writing the book, George Floyd was still alive, of course. And by the time my book came out, I was using his final words as one of the first quotes you'll read when you open the book. And that was important to me that people carry him in their heart and carry his mother in their heart, even though she passed before he did. But she was - he was calling out for her as he's dying, as the person who did believe in his humanity and would have protected him and would have tried to keep him alive. And I want readers to keep him with you as you're walking through these pages because it's not just about knowing three women in history. It's about asking what they are continuing to teach us about our world today and what's needed. And so at any moment, when we think - what is something that could have made Alberta, Berdis, or Louise's lives easier? If we still don't have that today - if we still don't have that policy, whether that's affordable child care or more resources for victims of domestic abuse, or not pushing women out of their jobs if they choose to start families or if they don't, we need to have that now, and it's time. So it's entirely about celebrating them just as much as it is about thinking of what we need to do now that we've learned from their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

TUBBS: These stories are not a part of ancient history, nor should they be seen as separate of other mothers simply because their sons became famous. They are representative of mothers' experiences, especially black mothers, who to this day are disrespected, denied paid leave, pushed out of their jobs, facing biases in health care systems, are victims of abuse, are mistreated and belittled, and who are being forgotten and erased. Would the world be different today if we'd been telling their stories all along? I believe so.

Mothers are essential. Mothers are powerful. Mothers have their own needs and their own identities. Mothers deserve support. It is time our stories and our policies reflect this. We can change the narrative. And when we do, the world will be a much better and equitable place for us all. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

ZOMORODI: That's sociologist and author Anna Malaika Tubbs. Her book is "The Three Mothers: How The Mothers Of MLK Jr., Malcolm X And James Baldwin Shaped A Nation." You can see her full talk at ted.com.

Thank you so much for listening to our show this week, celebrating these three mothers. This episode was produced by Rachel Faulkner and Katie Monteleone. It was edited by James Delahoussaye and Katie Simon. Our TED Radio production staff also includes Sanaz Meshkinpour, Diba Mohtasham, Matthew Cloutier, Fiona Geiran, Katherine Sypher and Rommel Wood. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint, Sammy Case and Daniela Balarezo. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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