For Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Common Reader Editor Gerald Early interviewed Anna Malaika Tubbs on her recent book, The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation (Flatiron Books, December 2021). The book is a New York Times Bestseller and Amazon Editors’ Choice; has made best-of lists from NPR to Fortune magazine; and is a Badass Women’s Bookclub pick.
The half-hour interview can be seen here, at the St. Louis County Library’s Facebook page.
When Tubbs first grew interested in her trio of biographical subjects, she could hardly believe the absence of scholarship on these women—Alberta King, Louise Little, and Berdis Baldwin—who so greatly influenced their famous sons. She ended up writing her doctoral dissertation on them at the University of Cambridge, at the same time that she wrote The Three Mothers for a general audience. (When trade books do come from dissertations, they are usually much different; this is not a matter of an easy edit.)
Race, gender, and their roles in history are main topics in The Three Mothers, but readers will find many other humanizing facts in the book, such as how all three women were born within a few years of each other, as were their sons, and that all the women were married to ministers. That last was not so unusual in context, Tubbs explains; the Black church was one of the few places where African Americans could find the freedom to organize and to support each other with community.
Tubbs reminds us how recently all these figures were alive and working. Her research took her to many archival sources and scholars, but she was also able to speak with family and friends of the women and their sons. She would like us to know the women’s names and their important historical roles, but also how, then and now, Black women “as a collective…deserve to be seen, and we deserve to be treated with that dignity and that respect.”
Dr. Early asked what Tubbs’ message to viewers might be, this MLK Day.
“The biggest thing I would like viewers to take away is that MLK, Jr., was not this entity on his own who popped out of nowhere, fully formed, with these ideas of nonviolence and how to transform the world. Instead, he is connected and rooted to a family. He was raised in a wonderful community—this church that believed in social justice—[and by] a mother who was so well educated and who took her talents and applied those to her mothering. [She] took her passions for freedom and applied those to teaching her children how to join her in that fight, similarly to the way she [brought] her husband under her wing and tutor[ed] him and help[ed] him get his college degree.
“There is so much more to MLK, Jr.’s, story that we have to learn…to even better appreciate and respect him,” Tubbs says. The same applies for Malcolm X and James Baldwin, and their remarkable mothers.
Anna Malaika Tubbs’ Ted Talk, “How Moms Shape the World,” can be watched for free here.