Mothers: Lamentation, Resistance, and Change (MLK Day Sermon)

2 Samuel 21: 1-14

By Benjamin Bolaños

To tell you the truth I’m tired of these one day holidays that we, as a country,  adore year after year, from President’s day, Caesar Chavez day, Indigenous People’s or Columbus Day and of course MLK day.  It’s not because I do not value what they represent or that I don’t believe in justice or equality or progress.  I’m tired of them because I find them to be frankly trite.  Every January we celebrate MLK day.  Every February we celebrate President’s day.  Every October we celebrate Indigenous People’s day.   AndI hear the same thing about that person or event each year. Particularly, the symbol of MLK has been lost for me since I know the story and I also know I get a day off. I get a day for each of these holidays.   I also know if I need a new car, there will be MLK deals for a ford or a toyota.  Or MLK deals at the shopping center.  In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, Neil Postman calls this symbol draining (see chapter 10).  The more you hear and see the symbol, the more it loses its efficacy and since we live in a consumer-oriented society, the more that symbol is usurped by consumerist values.  MLK holiday has been taken over by the system.  

But alas, I can’t leave it there right?  Here I am on MLK holiday weekend grappling with this very holiday I just picked apart.  Every so often my department pays for me to go get inspired and learn.  This year I attended a history conference in Philadelphia to attend workshops, lectures, etc. On a whim I attended Anna Malaika Tubbs talk on her book The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of MLK, Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.  This was it for me.  A revelation. We all need new stories to hear.  We need stories to live.1  And we need stories to remember something familiar in a new way.   

Alberta, Louise, Berties.  Alberta King, Louise Little, Emma Berties Baldwin.  Names you probably never even knew existed.  Mothers, wives, daughters, sisters.  The hidden Sojourner Truths or Harriet Tubmans or Rosa Parks of the civil rights era.  

On the night of April 4, 1968, Alberta King was heading to church when a church member honked and urgently asked them to listen to the radio.  Alberta’s worst nightmare had come true.  Months before, Martin, sitting with his Mom on the porch of their home in Atlanta, told her “Mother, there are some things I want you to know. There’s a chance, Mother, that someone is going to try to kill me and it could happen without any all.  But I don’t want you to worry over any of this.  I have to go on with my work, no matter what happens now, because my involvement is too complete to stop” (168-169, Tubbs). So how could she, Alberta King, forbid Martin from his work? After all this was how she raised him and how could she stand in the way of God’s calling? Alberta lost not just one son but two sons.  After Martin’s passing, A.D., or Albert Daniel, Martin’s brother, was installed as pastor of Ebenezer Church in Atlanta.  Fifteen months later he was found dead in his swimming pool under suspicious circumstances.  A.D. was an excellent swimmer (171, Tubbs).

Louise Little had only been released from a mental institution a year ago when her beloved Malcolm, whose physical, intellectual, spiritual features mirrored hers of all her children, was gunned down at a speaking engagement in Harlem in 1965.  Louise, whose husband was murdered by white men 25 years ago but considered a suicide by the local authorities, had been committed to a mental institution diagnosed with paranoia and other mental aberrations since she repeatedly stated the fact that her husband was actually murdered and KKK members were trying to kill her family.  And now after 25 years of incarceration she was reconnected with all her children, who had themselves lived with foster parents or in orphanages for most of their childhood.  Miraculously, her children remarked how their mother showed no “symptoms” of her initial diagnosis once she was reunited with them.  Louise, after all, was a product of the Marcus Garvey movement in the 1920’s and, in her own right, a force to be reckoned with.  But now within a year of her release, she lost her son who had continued her fight for black empowerment and civil rights.  

Berdis Baldwin knew her son was dying.  She never imagined she would live to bury her boy, the boy who had inherited her creativity, sharp wit, and other amazing talents.  But then again so many of the civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s had been murdered, exiled, or imprisoned that  the likelihood of James meeting the same end was not so far fetched.  But time had passed and it seemed that he would outlive her.  Yet like Alberta and Louise and so many other black mothers since the founding of this nation, she was not spared the agony of burying her own child.  

On November 30, 1987, in St. Paul de Vence in southeastern France, James Baldwin drifted away from stomach cancer after his brother kissed his forehead and said, “ It’s all right Jimmy, you can cross over now. “  Afterward, all in the room sang “Amazing Grace” as they mourned and lamented one of the greatest writers on race in America. 

Raising black children in a society that will eat you up for the color of your skin is a dangerous endeavor.  What then can a mother do in a world that does not see her or her family as part of God’s kingdom?  She must teach her children.  Love and resistance.  Survival and how to fight.  Intelligence and self definition.  Endurance and joy.  Faithfulness and triumph, and finally letting go.2  Why let go?  Because as black mothers you will give birth to a child that you cannot fully protect despite your best intentions.  So you do everything possible to imbue in them the very survival skills your parents and grandparents and ancestors instilled in you.  And then if the dreadful does happen, black mothers must bear witness to the violence on their sons and daughters with the courage only God can give them. 

Today’s scripture passage IS horrific.  We meet Rizpah, dethroned concubine of Saul, whose sons were taken by King David, along with Merab’s sons (Saul’s daughter) and brutally executed by the Gibeonites, as an act of misguided atonement for God’s wrath on lands that have left many dead from a famine going on three years.  It was outright revenge for Saul’s violence toward the Gibeonites.  Now, Rizpah, as any mother would do, does the most triumphant and powerful act that God gives us.  She could not protect her sons in life but she can protect them in death.  Rizpah becomes the progenitor of Shmirah, a Jewish custom of guarding the dead between the time of death and the time of burial. 

In her book Womanist Midrash, Wil Gafney describes Rizpah’s vigil:

“Rizpah bat Aiah watches the corpses of her sons stiffen, soften, swell, and sink into the stench of decay … fights with winged, clawed, and toothed scavengers night and day. She is there from the spring harvest until the fall rains, as many as six months from Nissan (March/April) to Tishrei (September/October), sleeping, eating, toileting, protecting, and bearing witness.” 5

You can see a visual representation of this if you look up George Becker’s 1875 depiction “Rizpah Protecting Her Sons,” which is shown above.

Rizpah is politically powerless since she cannot confront the King directly but she is spiritually potent,  powerful in God.  The lynching of her sons did not stop the famine and so her vigil became a public outcry and appeal.  David is thus forced to bury the slain and only then does God heal the lands.  The act of the burial recognizes that the bodies of the slain are not just bones but sons and brothers, human beings who were loved.  

Our modern-day Rizpahs are just as powerful.  I think of George’s Floyd’s murder who cried out for his mother as he died.  His murder was captured on video as a testament to the brutality of police violence — a social media vigil ensued.   Emmett Till’s mom and his open casket to show the world what they had done to her child, which in turn catalyzed the civil rights movement.  The killing of Treyvon Martin fostered the Black Lives matter movement led by three mothers.  And we can go on.  

I can’t give you every detail that made Alberta, Louise, and Berties special but I can say this: They were black girls before they were mothers.  They were well educated, could read and write at a very high level.  All three were entrenched in a community of religious background that gave them support and resources.  Alberta stayed in Georgia and helped lead the Ebenezer Church that her son took over later.  The other two, Louise and Berties, moved to the north during the Great Migration and found support there, but not as robust as if they had stayed in the south. And all of these women faced obstacles that were just as dangerous as you can imagine.  Just getting married and having a child was a magnificent feat given the historical forces against such privileges.  Black marriages were hindered by economic instability, job losses, poor health outcomes, lynchings, race riots, you name it (72, Tubbs).  Having a child in these conditions would be a revolutionary act in itself.  These are the conditions these women gave birth.  As Tubbs writes in her Three Mothers book, “getting married and having a child was a form of resistance for many black families” (83, Tubbs). As they grew older, Alberta King wanted to teach, Louise Little wanted to write, and Bertie Balwin wanted to perform her prose and music. And as mothers, their passions would invariably influence their sons.  Martin as a prophet and teacher.  Malcom X as an orator and leader.  James as a gifted author and playwright.  And thus all three were instrumental in the civil rights movement.  

I hope many of us today are thinking about their mothers or fathers or guardians or whomever you see as a parent figure.  I am a brown man in a white world.  And I think of my mother quite often since her passing and wonder what she instilled in me.  Some are known to me, others I have yet to discover. But I know she bore witness to many tragedies, including losing a child after a car accident, my brother.   I can still hear her say, “You gotta be faithful to the Lord ok?  You gotta learn, educate yourself.  Don’t take BS from anybody. Be kind, generous, and honest.  Laugh and dance!  If you see BS, call it out because you don’t have time to deal with that.  Love your family and do whatever you need to do for them.”  

But you know what the most important advice she gave me when I was 7 years old?  Back in New Jersey, I came down the stairs covered in baby powder, buck naked, everything out, and gleefully yelling, “Look mom I’m white  I’m white!”  She looked at me with her typical smirk and then burst out laughing, and after a few moments she gathered herself together said “Dios mio don’t be stupid you are not white!  So take that baby power off and just be proud of yourself. Dinner’s almost ready and I don’t need baby powder all over the table.”  Boom.  Done.  No time for BS.   Know yourself first then you can deal with the real stuff.  Since her passing and due in part to my own struggles, and I think this is fitting, the only thing that comforts me when I’m going through stuff is when I invoke “ Mother-Christ, guide me and protect me.  Mother and Christ help me.” 

So MLK day.  What is it really?  Maybe it’s a holiday that forces us to grapple with the uneasiness of it.  Maybe it forces us to grapple with which stories are being told and which ones are ignored.  Or that it forces us to admit that our decisions and life goals are intertwined with the ambitions and lessons of our ancestors. Possibly.  But for me, at least at this moment and this year, MLK day is about mothers’ bearing witness and an understanding that mothers have a power unlike no other.  And that is the power to create life and know they can summon the most divine forces to create change.6  To lament for a child is a mighty spiritual act that cannot be silenced by mere principalities and powers of oppression and hate.  They just don’t have a chance in the world against this type of authority, of a grieving and very very angry mother.  

So on that note, Amen. 

1 Inspired by Joan Didion’s We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live

2  Inspired by Audre Lorde’s paper on “Age, Race, Class and Sex.” Reprinted in Tubb’s book.

3  Cited in Ripzah: Turning Tragedy into Triumph. Rev. Terry Ann Smith, Ph.D., and Rev. Micah L. McCreary, Ph.D

4  Inspired by the film, A Christmas Carol (2019), when Mary Cratchit invokes a divine power for scrooge’s exploitation. See this scene.