"The Three Mothers" Excerpt: Our Trials, Tribulations, and Tragedies

Author Anna Malaika Tubbs provided QDT with an excerpt from her book The Three Mothers, which celebrates untold stories of Black motherhood. In her book, she tells the stories of the mothers of James Baldwin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm Little. 

Anna Malaika Tubbs
7-minute read

The three women’s lives vacillated between pain and joy. They raised their children through times of great social upheaval outside of their homes, and they also experienced tragedies within their family that rocked the foundation of their existence. But their pain shows us the strength of their continued ability to push forward. By remembering the events taking place beyond their homes—race riots, the onset of World War II, strides in African American freedom movements—we are able to see how each woman navigated loss and triumph both in and outside of her family unit. The way Alberta, Louise, and Berdis dealt with their own agony gave their children the strength to push through the suffering they would experience in the future.

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In many ways, Alberta’s life was the easiest in her younger years as compared with Louise’s and Berdis’s. Her parents were able to provide her with a stable home, a loving community, and the education they desired for her. They laid the groundwork that set her up for success and in turn provided for her children and their children after them. Alberta was able to stay in the South and thrive: she could support her husband through his journey and pass on her knowledge to her children. This is not to say that Alberta was not required to work hard and persist through her own challenges, but the generational resources her parents built for her gave her a cushion the other two women were not as fortunate to enjoy.

Alberta’s father, Reverend Adam Daniel Williams, the son of a slave exhorter from Greene County, Georgia, arrived in Atlanta at the age of thirty. At the time of his arrival, he was not aware of all the incredible things he would accomplish before his death, for his family, his church, and his larger Black community. Under his and his wife’s thirty-seven years of leadership, Ebenezer Baptist Church became one of the most central and influential parts of Atlanta’s Black community. He took the church from a small gathering of people to one of the largest congregations in the country. He’d lived through the horrific race riot of 1906, when white mobs killed and attacked as many Black people as they could, and he’d spoken up against such injustices. He made himself known as a person who would not stand by but would make as many changes in the world as he possibly could or die trying. He and his wife were some of the earliest members of the NAACP. They led boycotts and other demonstrations, never wavering in their fight for freedom.

Alberta’s mother, Jennie Celeste, had also become well-known in Atlanta for her work alongside her husband and other freedom fighters. She was born in Atlanta in 1873 as one of thirteen children. She married Adam Daniel in 1899 after attending Spelman Seminary and being the president of Ebenezer Baptist Church’s Women’s Missionary Society. She cared deeply about uplifting and highlighting the role women played in the Black church and in the Black freedom movement. Mrs. Williams was known and appreciated for many things, including her cooking, her fervent support of her daughter’s education and musical training, her welcoming of everyone into her home (especially those who did not have a peaceful one of their own), and the respect she commanded as the pious first lady of Ebenezer Baptist for all those years. 

They raised their children through times of great social upheaval outside of their homes, and they also experienced tragedies within their family that rocked the foundation of their existence.

Reverend Williams and Jennie Celeste made everything possible for Alberta and her family. Reverend King also owed much of his fortune to his father-in-law; without Reverend Williams opening his home and mentoring Reverend King, the King family would not have enjoyed the same levels of comfort. But the decade of Alberta’s life taking place between the early 1930s and the early 1940s would be different. The death of her father was one of the most difficult losses of her existence. 

When Reverend Williams was seventy and Alberta only twenty-seven, he suffered a fatal stroke. Alberta was devastated; her father and mother had given her everything. Her family would have to go on without his presence, holding on to the memories of his life and his works to guide them. The year of his death was the same year that nine Black boys were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train less than 150 miles away from Atlanta in Scottsboro, Alabama. Alberta, her mother, and her husband would need to remember Reverend Williams’s bravery in the face of racial injustice. As more gains in Black freedom were fought for and won, more violence against Black people arose. Tactics to suppress Black advancement heightened and adapted.

Hours after the young Black men were accused, word spread and a white mob rallied around the jail where they were being held. By a stroke of luck, the mob was unsuccessful in getting to the boys, who miraculously went on to stand trial. They anxiously awaited their fate, well aware of the injustice and prejudice they would face in court. In the first set of trials, an entirely white jury convicted all of them. Only one was spared from being sentenced to death. Instead, he was given a life sentence because he was a minor. The verdict held even after one of the women recanted her testimony and a medical examination refuted the rape charge.

The Scottsboro boys became known across the world; their story incited uproar, and groups rallied together all over the United States to protest the guilty verdicts. Two landmark decisions happened along the way, one being Powell v. Alabama (1932), which ruled that the boys had been denied their right to counsel in violation of what they were entitled to under the Fourteenth Amendment. The second took place in 1935 when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdicts, ruling that the boys were denied a fair trial when Black people were systematically excluded from jury rolls. The Scottsboro case helped to fuel the rise of the upcoming civil rights movement, but it wasn’t until 2013 that all the boys were posthumously pardoned by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. The nine young men spent years in and out of prison and were never able to recover from the pain of the torture they endured. One died at age thirty-nine, another killed himself, another was shot in the head by a prison guard, another was denied treatment for a disease he had been originally taking the train out of town to treat, another turned to drinking. Few of the nine were able to live stable lives following the tyrannical ordeal.

As more gains in Black freedom were fought for and won, more violence against Black people arose.

Blacks in the South, and the rest of the country, were continuing to fight for their basic human rights, like the ability to ride a train without being falsely accused of a crime or the right to a fair trial with a jury of their peers when facing accusations. Change needed to happen, and the lessons of Reverend Williams would continue to ring in the ears of the King family and motivate their own political action. In the 1930s, both Alberta and Martin became active members of the NAACP. Alberta would also go on to join the Phyllis Wheatley branch of the YWCA, named after a woman who was sold into slavery at the age of seven and went on to become the first published African American female poet in American history. Alberta was also a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Each of these groups was dedicated to the empowerment and liberation of the most marginalized. In these organizations, Alberta carried forward her parents’ legacy and fought alongside her husband and other activists for the freedom of all people.

The end of this decade brought the second in a series of tragedies Alberta would face. In 1941, her mother, Jennie Celeste Williams, died after suffering a heart attack while serving as the Women’s Day speaker at Mount Olive Baptist Church. Mrs. Williams adored her daughter and her grandchildren. She played an essential role in raising the three King children. Her death was especially traumatic for the young Martin Luther King, Jr. The loss weighed heavier on him than it did on his siblings, and he felt that God was punishing him for his sins by taking his grandmother away. The day of her death, twelve-year-old Martin had decided to skip out on homework and see a parade. When he returned home to the news of his grandmother’s passing, he blamed himself and fell into a depression. His parents were able to talk him out of the guilt and grief he felt, but the whole family faced a deep sadness when Jennie Celeste passed.

Alberta’s entire world was rocked by losing both of her parents by the age of thirty-seven. She was fortunate to have her own family now, one built with the same love and faith that she was raised in, but life would certainly never be the same. With the passing of her parents, Alberta and Martin Luther Sr. fully stepped into their roles as the new leaders of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Alberta went from being the adored only child of the Williams family to the revered first lady of the church, known affectionately to thousands as “Mama King.”

It would be many years before the King family would experience such severe trauma again—losses that would come once more in sequence, with unimaginable intensity. They would coincide with growing racial tension, and this was not a coincidence. The King family were active members in the fight for Black humanity, which meant their losses were tied directly to the larger struggles taking place across the country. But for now, the young family thrived in the abundance of love and strength that filled the community they were continuing to build.