Family crowdfunding documentary based on life of former Okemos resident and Detroit judge
The life story of a former Okemos resident, state official and the longest-serving chief judge in Michigan's largest district court is being developed into a documentary.
Marylin Atkins, 76, published "The Triumph of Rosemary: A Memoir" in 2017 memoir chronicling her life from a foster child to a career as a public servant and the domestic abuse, racism and religious scrutiny she endured after she fled Michigan to marry a white former Catholic priest. Atkins' mother was white and her father was Black.
Atkins and her two daughters are crowdfunding the documentary they hope to film in Detroit.
"After people read the book, they said, 'Wow, this is good enough it should be a movie,'" Atkins recalled. "So we started the crowdfunding effort to raise money (for production)."
Her two daughters started Two Sisters Writing and Publishing in 2016 to promote more diverse stories and authors, including Atkins', said daughter Elizabeth Atkins.
The film surrounds Atkins overcoming child abuse as a foster child and her interracial marriage to an ex-priest 25 years older than her.
"The whole message is love conquers all," Elizabeth said.
A life surrounded by adversity
Atkins wrote in her memoir that her birth mother, a white Italian woman, had a secret relationship with a Black man that resulted in her becoming pregnant. Her birth mother's great-grandmother didn't want Black people in the family and fought to put Atkins, who was then named Rosemary Lupo, up for adoption. She eventually convinced both Atkins' mother and grandmother to place her in foster care.
Atkins grew up having unconditional love from her adoptive father Clyde James, and what she describes as conditional, sometimes violent love from her adoptive mother Billie Alice Bowman.
The Saginaw couple adopted Rosemary in 1948 at a Detroit foster care. They renamed her Marylin Bowman.
Two years later they adopted Sonny (formerly Odell Springer), who was also born to a white woman and a Black father.
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"My adopted father was wonderful," Atkins said. "But she was all about succeeding. It's funny because on one hand, she'd say, 'You're never going to amount to anything,' but on the other hand, I would always get a beating if I didn't make the honor roll."
Marilyn Bowman met Rev. Thomas Lee Atkins at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saginaw as a young woman. She played the organ, and he was the parish priest.
At 19, and in relationship with a man who was abusing her, Bowman sought advice from the priest. Thomas, 25 years older, told her he wanted to leave 15 years of priesthood to start a family.
The next year in 1966, Bowman and Atkins traveled to Toledo, Ohio, where they were married in a courthouse to escape the scrutiny in Saginaw of their interracial marriage.
Unlike 15 other states at the time, neither Michigan nor Ohio banned interracial marriages, which the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled, in Loving v. Virginia, violated the Fourteenth Amendment.
The couple had two daughters, Elizabeth in 1967 and Catherine in 1968. Thomas died in 1990 due to kidney failure. Atkins retired from the 36th District Court in Wayne County in 2012, after serving as chief judge for 12 years.
Former Wayne County judge Deborah Ford knew Atkins as they served in the court together, and Ford practiced as an attorney in Atkins' courtroom prior to becoming a judge.
Ford said she admired and respected the measures she and Thomas took to marry each other.
"(For him) to leave priesthood? That's a lot with all of that professional disrespect, I respected it so much," Ford said.
Atkins said her husband's family didn't approve of their relationship initially as the family is heavily involved in the Catholic church.
But tensions eased when Elizabeth climbed up Thomas's mother's lap.
"(Grandmother Alphonsine) smiled and kissed me on the cheek and that started to melt the ice," Elizabeth said. "That's why we believe that mixed race kids, of all different mixes, literally form a bridge between all people to create harmony, even if it starts off contentious."
Atkins said she owes her adoptive mother Billie for her career success since her childhood was so disciplined, but she said she could have "done better without the beatings."
Billie changed over the years after Clyde's 1973 passing, Atkins said, adding that she took care of Billie until she died in 2003.
From Detroit to Okemos
Thomas and Marilyn moved from Saginaw to Detroit in 1974 and Atkins started school at the University of Detroit. She became assistant to the director of Labor Relations in the Michigan Employment Security Commission (now the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency) in 1977.
Atkins graduated from the University of Detroit in 1980 and worked her sought-after job as hearings referee until September that year when she was hired to the Legislative Services Bureau under the Attorney General's office, and the family moved to Okemos.
She transferred to the office's environmental division in 1981 for a short period before accepting a transfer to the Workers Compensation Division where Former Gov. James Blanchard appointed her in 1985 as the chair.
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The family sold its Okemos home in 1987 as Thomas was reassigned to a Detroit office within the MESC. She took a job several years later as a magistrate judge at the 36th District Court.
"On June 7, 1991, I said goodbye to my Appeal Board colleagues and I was off to my next adventure," Atkins wrote in her book. "(Former Chief Judge Alex) Allen administered the Oath of Office to me on June 19, 1991."
Gov. John Engler appointed her as a 36th District Court judge in 1994 after which she won several re-election campaigns. Former Chief Judge Joseph Baltimore appointed her as chief judge in May of 1999 and she held the position until 2012.
Atkins' daughters also faced adversity growing up biracial but appearing white.
Both graduated from Okemos High School, Elizabeth in 1985, and Catherine, who is now Catherine Atkins Greenspan, in 1986.
One ex-boyfriend broke up with Elizabeth after he met her family, Atkins said.
"A white guy took her out, and as soon as he found out her mother is Black and he used the N-word, He said 'I can't date you anymore,'" Atkins recalled.
Filming the documentary
Atkins Greenspan linked her mother with filmmaker Nick Alexander to start production on the documentary and began crowdfunding on June 12. Plans are to film in Detroit this fall. They've raised $5,300 to date and need $94,700 more.
The family will hold auditions to act out "key scenes" in Atkins' life, Elizabeth said. It should take three to four weeks to complete and they've set a tentative release date of June 12, 2023, the 56th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia.
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She hoped for the documentary to be entered into film festivals as Alexander's 2021 film "Illegal," won accolades there. That film is focused on Laz Ayala's path toward U.S. citizenship after he and his family left El Salvador, according to Alexander's website.
Atkins didn't leave any parts of her life out of her memoir to show people they can achieve the same level of success she has.
Writing about her life wasn't therapeutic. Instead, she saw it as a story that needed to be told.
"But the message is I go from foster care, to being the longest-serving chief judge of a large major court," she said. "If I can do that going through the stuff I did, you can do it too."
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Contact reporter Krystal Nurse at (517) 267-1344 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @KrystalRNurse.
This article originally appeared on Lansing State Journal: 'Triumph of Rosemary' turning into a documentary this fall