Retired judge Marylin Atkins pens autobiography
As Marylin E. Atkins’ daughter reminds her, it’s nothing short of miraculous that the retired chief judge of Detroit’s 36th District Court turned out so well.
Her odds at birth looked grim.
A little black baby born to an Italian girl and a married African-American man in 1946 had to be hustled out of sight as soon as possible. So little “Rosemary,” as her birth mother named her, was promptly put up for adoption.
Atkins, now 71, wrestles with this difficult childhood — one that ultimately led to unexpected accomplishment and happiness — in a lively, readable memoir, “The Triumph of Rosemary.” Despite an abusive and unloving adoptive mother, or perhaps because of that, Atkins forged the necessary “indomitable resilience” to see her through.
“With a parent like that,” she said, “you either sink or swim.”
Atkins swam for dear life.
Keeping her afloat throughout were two extraordinary men. The first was Atkins’ adoptive father, Clyde James Bowman, who was tender and loving in all the ways his wife was not.
The other was a white former priest, Thomas Lee Atkins, who married Marylin Bowman in 1966.
Ask about her father, and Atkins momentarily tears up.
“He was lovely,” she said, “and very much old school.”
Every week, she explained, he’d bring his check home from GM’s Saginaw Malleable Iron Foundry “and my mother gave him an allowance. He was quiet and everybody just loved him.”
When she was 18, an abusive boyfriend kicked Atkins hard in the back, her father sprinted out and threw the young malefactor over the backyard fence.
“My dad had his fatal heart attack three months after that,” she recalled, speaking in her home near Detroit’s Lafayette Park, “and my mother blamed it on his saving me.”
As a consequence, guilt haunted Atkins until her dad’s cardiologist told her he’d had serious heart trouble for years.
Yet for all the verbal abuse and whippings, Atkins’ mother performed some of her parental duties admirably.
Among other things, Billie Alice Bowman raised her daughter to be tough, “like a boy,” and to stand her ground. Atkins credits her mother with instilling the drive that would eventually propel her through Saginaw Valley State University and the University of Detroit Mercy Law School.
Despite an obsession with what other people thought, on hearing that four grown men had cat-called her little girl with racial slurs, Atkins’ mother stormed out, paring knife in hand, and read the louts the riot act before they all slunk off.
And while the family was Roman Catholic and attended a largely white church, Atkins’ mother saw to it that her children developed appropriate racial pride.
“You will not be learning your Negro history from a white school or white church,” she told her little girl.
So every Sunday, after the 8 a.m. Catholic mass, a family friend took Atkins and her brother, Sonny, to the 11 a.m. service at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
When a white classmate at St. Mary’s Cathedral School told Atkins she was invited to a sleepover because she wasn’t “too” dark-skinned, Atkins told her in no uncertain words where to shove it.
Skin color mattered not at all, however, when an older man fell in love with her.
Lee Atkins was a Catholic priest 25 years Marylin Bowman’s senior, who’d struggled for years with a desire to leave the priesthood and form his own family.
The priest confided in the young woman, and in conversations over the months that followed as he cemented his decision, Lee fell head over heels in love with her.
“I immediately set about trying to get Lee to change his mind, because I’d never heard of a priest leaving the priesthood,” Atkins said. “Somehow during those interactions, he decided I was going to be his wife. After five months, I agreed.”
Their marriage in 1966, when Marylin was 19 and Lee 44, came with a heavy price. The local bishop advised the pair to leave the state, and for good measure, excommunicated them.
(Interestingly, in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage nationwide with Loving v. Virginia, though the practice had long been legal in Michigan.)
“Only a few friends supported my decision to marry this man,” Atkins said. “Everyone else was against it, saying, ‘This is absolutely not going to work. You’re going to be excommunicated. And you’re going to hell.’ ”
You want proof that marrying this “peaceful” man was the right decision?
All her life, Atkins had a terrible problem biting her nails, a bad habit she attributes to the fear her mother instilled in her. But once she met Lee?
She shakes her head and smiles. “I suddenly realized I wasn’t biting my nails anymore.”
Their marriage produced two daughters, Elizabeth Ann Atkins, who was a Detroit News reporter in the 1990s, and Catherine Marie Greenspan. In 2016, the pair co-founded Two Sisters Writing & Publishing and had the pleasure of bringing out their mother’s memoir.
Both had urged their mother to get her story down on paper. “Over the years,” Elizabeth said, “lots of people — friends, family and colleagues — told her, ‘Your story is a movie. Your story is a book.’ ”
But reading the completed manuscript was a bit tough for the author and publisher. “I had to do a read-through first before I could focus on editing,” Elizabeth said, “because the content was so emotional.”
(Two Sisters also recently published “Let the Future Begin,” former Detroit Mayor Dennis W. Archer’s autobiography.)
Lee died in 1990, and as a consequence never got to see his wife become district judge three years later — a job she said she always adored.
“That’s one of the sad things in my life,” Atkins said. “Lee would have been very proud. But he saw me become a lawyer, at least.”
(Ironically, her abusive mother did see her become a judge, and Atkins said she took considerable pride in her daughter’s achievement.)
Throughout their years together, Lee was consistently understanding and kind, Atkins said — a teammate who was always concerned with what she or the kids were thinking.
“Whenever I heard people talk about ‘working at their marriage,’ ” she said, “I didn’t know what they were talking about. We never had to work at it.”
Before retirement: Chief Judge 36th District Court, Detroit
Education: Bachelor’s degree, Saginaw Valley State University; Juris Doctorate, University of Detroit Mercy Law School
Family: Widow; daughters Elizabeth and Catherine
Book signings with Judge Marylin E. Atkins:
University of Detroit Mercy School of Law
651 E. Jefferson, Detroit (in atrium)
5 p.m. Wednesday
4240 Cass, Detroit
4 p.m. March 18