How hard did your mother work in service to her love for you? Families too often celebrate Mother's Day with cards, flowers, and candies without really engaging in conversation about motherhood and the commitment it entails. My mother worked three jobs at a time to make the best education available to me and my sister. She kept us in church five days a week and showed us that leadership was service to our community, our family, and ourselves. Her mother, Lilla, imparted those hard lessons during the worst years of racial segregation in New Jersey (1930-1945). It was the sacrifices of thousands of women like them who made an inclusive ideal of freedom possible in the 20th century.
Historian Jacqueline Jones' landmark work, “Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow,” documents the efforts of African American women to redefine a nation in the image of the love they offered their families. She documents hundreds of cases of sacrifice, humility, and diligence — often at the risk of life and limb — that challenged intersecting and prevailing ideas about the natural leadership of men, the scientific truth of white supremacy, and the rationality of poverty in the global marketplace. The role of the mother — her literal range of emotion in those relationships — provided the fuel that motivated the social revolution that made equality a reality rather than an ideal.
More recently, Victoria Wolcott's book, “Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters,” examined these same forces in communities in northern towns. Her insights on the Civil Rights Movement contribute to a growing literature that reveals the incremental protests and legal battles that opened the door for federal challenges to housing discrimination, school segregation, and police brutality nationwide after 1954. Mother's Day 2013 is a new opportunity to tell our family stories about building new organizations and institutions that will expand the promise of freedom for our children and grandchildren.
The pressing problem for the coming generation is the crisis of economic inequality and environmental catastrophe. On both fronts, today's mothers face a new generation of challenges that only their passionate resilience can address. A celebration of motherhood must push past the traditional maxims about cooking, bedtime stories, and fresh laundry. A new mom has to combine the virtues of responsibility and generosity in the twentieth century, and it is time she received our praise.
Walter Greason is the author of "Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement."