Lillian Mirmak obituary | Civil rights movement

My mother, Lillian Mirmak, who has died aged 87, was a court reporter, political activist and lover of culture and the arts. She grew up in the US, where she was active in the civil rights movement, and then lived in London for more than 50 years.

Born in York, Pennsylvania, Lillian was the eldest of three children of Katherine (nee Craiger), a shop assistant, and John Mirmak, a draughtsman in a factory. She went to John P McCaskey high school in Lancaster, graduating in 1953 and then worked for two years in the office of a local meat factory before enrolling at Millersville Teachers College.

Initially intending to be an actor or writer, she became increasingly politicised through her late teens. The turning point came when she attended the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, an early civil rights demonstration in Washington, in 1957. She brought back “Freedom Now” pins and distributed them to her peers at college. Her teachers decided she was a bad influence and she was expelled.

An interest in socialism was fired by friends who had fought in the Korean war and had become disillusioned with US foreign policy. She became an active member of the Young People’s Socialist League and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

A cutting of Lillian Mirmak taking part in a sit-inPin
A cutting of Lillian Mirmak taking part in a sit-in

Lillian took part in the Freedom Rides through the south, encouraging voter registration in the face of death threats, intimidation and violence. She staged sit-ins in support of equal employment rights for black employees and helped organise buses to the March on Washington, in 1963, where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech. Her brother recalls her taking him to see Malcolm X speak, and she was close friends with many young black activists, including a pre-Black Panthers Stokely Carmichael.

During this period, she did secretarial work for a number of local employers, and then switched to a temp agency called Dot Girls, part of the Dictaphone company and through them got the chance to work in the UK.

She moved to London in 1969, and began a 49-year career as a court reporter for the firm Marten Walsh Cherer, working mainly with the royal courts of justice and in later years with HMRC. She raised me as a single mother, somehow still finding time to campaign for the Labour party at three elections. She also spent a decade from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s as chair of governors at Warwick Park school, in Peckham, south-east London.

At the turn of the century she discovered she had ovarian cancer and underwent operations and rounds of chemotherapy with typical determination and courage. She spent her final 20 years travelling the world, visiting Greece, Croatia, Italy, Germany, Taiwan, China and Turkey – where she flew in a hot air balloon over Cappadocia.

At the age of 80 she dyed her hair electric blue, a look so distinctive she was often photographed by local art students, the art enthusiast becoming a late-life muse.

She is survived by me and her two grandchildren, Robyn and Lara, and by her younger brother, Ed.

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