Yesterday was a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, a person who enabled so many to believe in and eventually live their dreams. I’ve learned of his work and the civil rights movement through books and documentaries. But I’ve had the honor to understand this through the stories of my mother-in-law, who is a heroine of the civil rights movement and embodies the spirit of Dr. King’s work.
My mother-in-law, “Mom”, Olivia Whitlock Filerman, was born in Greenwood Mississippi. Her mother was a domestic worker and her father a small business owner. She grew up in St. Louis Missouri with her mother and maternal aunts, all of whom were incredibly strong, witty and resilient. My mother-in-law ended up being one of the first to go to college, full scholarship, at the age of 16. She later received her Masters in Social Work from the University of Chicago. Clearly she is a person of great intellect. Equally as important at that time, was her and her mother’s deep desire to not allow external barriers to keep Mom from what she could be. Her road was not an easy one, filled with obstacles, external discouragement and outright racism. Yet she endured and prevailed.
My 8-year old daughter recently had a class assignment where she had to “become” and speak to the contributions of an American. She chose Rosa Parks. My husband and I encouraged her to choose this person. We thought, through this historical figure, she could understand her grandmother’s life and hence, herself more deeply. Alyssa could not understand why certain people would be forced to sit in the back of the bus, give up their seats when asked or use separate drinking fountains and rest rooms because of the color of their skin. The basics of life that she takes for granted, like going to any restaurant she pleases or knowing she can do anything she wants, was not afforded to her grandmother and other African-Americans. Through Alyssa’s disbelief and sense of injustice, I realized how far we’ve come as a society and at the same time, I realized just how much endurance, hope and personal resolve Mom had to have had to eventually become the professional woman living in Greenwich Village in New York City. Through her stories of her past as well as of more recent years, I also understand how far we still have to go, to be able to live in a society where every person has true access to become their very best and live a life that is truly free and honored.
My mother-in-law is 80 and unfortunately in the grips of Alzheimers. I wish she was more lucid, so she can enjoy her life more, for a little longer, given how much she’s had to overcome in her life. I wish she was more lucid, so she can engage in the lives of her son’s children, a new generation in her lineage, who is truly more free and more accepted. I wish she was more lucid, so she would know with certainty, that our country has elected an African-American President. I wish she was more lucid, so she can witness the changing fabric of our society and world that calls for civil rights ever more deeply, so that we can all truly dream and become the joy we see in our reveries.
My mother-in-law has lived true to her beliefs, in civil rights and in the goodness of God. She has welcomed such diverse people into her life. She has always held a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo of intolerance. She has always fought for people’s right to become. She has loved the people close to her. Even in her current state, where it is hard for her to know what is real, she carries herself with such elegance and grace and meets us with such joy and love.
In honor of my mother-in-law, in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King and all who have endured valiantly for their freedom, may each of us choose to pursue our dreams, appreciating our freedom to do so. May we respect each individual whom we encounter, honoring the unique story and experience of that person. May we choose to help another in their becoming, for that is the underlying essence of Dr. King, my mother-in-law and other heroes of their time.