Mary Thomas Way: A Tribute to Courage and Service

When Homan Street on the Westside of Chicago, Illinois is changed to Mary Thomas Way on Saturday, August 4 it will be a salute to every mother who is a "drum major" for sacrifice and service in their family. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in his speech The Drum Major Instinct, "everyone can be great... because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love."

Alderman Jason C. Ervin of Chicago's 28th Ward, wrote the ordinance honoring Mary Thomas. "The life of Mary Thomas is a shining example of singles mothers who work every day to provide for their children so that they may have a better life. She serves a role model for single parents in Chicago who are faced with hard economic times, but sacrifice for their children."

"Growing up, I had the opportunity to know Mary Thomas. She was a generous woman who would give the clothes off her back. Her life sheds light on the struggles of single parents raising children in poverty, and I am honored to have known her."

Mary Thomas personified that greatness by leading a life of courage and dignity while fulfilling her most important duty, being a mother. She raised nine children including NBA Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas on an extremely limited income on the rough streets of Chicago's Westside as a single mother. She fought hard for them to become educated and to have a fair shot in life. But she didn't stop there! Mary Thomas spent her life engaging in acts of service in the community so that all the kids in the neighborhood could learn, play, and grow without fear. As a strong woman and matriarch, her life was profiled in the 1989 movie A Mother's Courage: The Mary Thomas Story starring Alfre Woodard and Leon amongst others.

The honoring of Thomas on Saturday represents a collective strength and collective determination for many single mothers around the nation who are faced with the similar challenge of raising children in poverty. The percentage of households headed by single mothers that are in poverty is 31.6 percent. That percentage doesn't take into account the large number of single mothers who live just above the poverty line but still struggle to provide basic needs for their children. For example, 2012 poverty guidelines place the poverty threshold for a family of three at $19,090. This suggests that a single mother with two children that makes $20,000 a year is not poor. This is typically the group that makes just enough not to qualify for public housing, medical benefits, and other staples of the social safety net.

Behind every statistic on single mothers who are teetering at or below the poverty line is a story. The story is overwhelmingly one that requires much more effort from a poor person to gain access to basic quality education, nourishment, shelter, and healthcare. Whether it be the 90 minute commute each way that included three transfers and a mile and a half walk that Mary's youngest son, Isiah, took to attend the private St. Joseph High School or the frequent rummaging for food that the family did to survive; the odds are stacked against progressing in a system that erects enormous barriers to economic advancement for lower income families.

These daunting realities make the story of Mary Thomas and other single mothers across the country that much more remarkable. Many marvel at Mary Thomas' strength, stamina, and amazing spirit in the face of triumphs and adversity. This is the kind of success that will be recognized this Saturday on Mary Thomas Way in Chicago and that should be acknowledged and appreciated in communities across the nation.

In recognition of her spirit of service, Mary's Court, a foundation set up in her honor seeks to improve the lives of families by engaging in educational and violence prevention initiatives. Mary Thomas is a beacon, a benchmark, and a trailblazer for women known and unknown. She represents the power of love, family, and community. As Dr. King reminded us, "Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve."