Let's address how long the pizza magnate was involved in the civil rights icon's expenses, and to what extent.
So, Mike Ilitch died. You know this, because we’ve been publicly mourning the man for what, a week now? Granted, Ilitch did a lot for Detroit, and yes, maybe we were just a little too quick in lionizing his accomplishments without acknowledging that he leaves behind a complex legacy. Lots of pizza and sports! Also, lots of land speculation and taxpayer expenses!
But among one of the more feel-good stories to pop up about Ilitch is how he paid the rent for Rosa Parks – the original embodiment of “she was warned, she was given an explanation, nevertheless, she persisted” – when she moved into the Riverfront Towers in the mid-1990s.
Did the pizza magnate help with the living expenses for the civil rights icon? Yes. For how long? Well, not as long as some news outlets are claiming – and, for that matter, not as much as a contribution as implied.
First, a back story: Years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Parks and her family moved to Detroit in the 1960s. For more than 20 years, she worked as a secretary for Rep. John Conyers while living in a home on Columbus Street near Northwestern High School. A robbery at that home in 1994 prompted a move to the three-building Riverfront Towers – two of which were built in 1982, the third built in 1992. Parks began writing her memoirs from her new, 25th-floor high-rise.
(And per a 1994 piece in the New York Times, the apartment complex made room for Parks when there was no room: Mrs. Parks said she had intended to move several months ago to the apartment complex, called Riverfront Apartments, because she was tired of going up and down stairs. But Mr. Reed said the complex had recently told her that they had no room. Today, the complex speedily arranged for the temporary room.”)
It’s around here where Ilitch comes into the picture. According to Detroit historian Jamon Jordan (you can watch him in action on our tour of significant sites impacted by the 1967 riots, as part of BLAC's #1967At50 project), Conyers, former mayor Coleman Young, then-mayor Dennis Archer and late radio legend Martha Jean “The Queen” Steinberg pooled some funds to cover Parks’ initial living expenses.
This is easily backed up with a bit of googling, as per a Jet Magazine article from 1994: Civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks receives several checks totaling $53,134 from U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith in his chambers in Detroit. Keith and Detroit radio personality Martha Jean Steinberg established the Rosa Parks Trust Fund in September after she was attacked and robbed in her home. To date, more than $100,000 has been raised for Ms. Parks and will be used for her living expenses.
(Also in that same issue: Y’alls auntie Maxine Waters.)
Was Ilitch part of that fund? Yes – according to Judge Keith’s memoirs. In fact, Ilitch actually came to the rescue at Keith’s behest, alongside developer A. Alfred Taubman.
Parks lived comfortably for years, but even being a civil rights icon doesn’t guarantee financial security. It was around the early 2000s that Parks fell behind on her rent.
Here’s where it gets complicated. WXYZ, WDIV and the Detroit Free Press, among others, all cite a Sports Business Daily article from 2014 in which Keith describes how Ilitch – through Little Caesars Enterprises – stepped in to help Parks two decades earlier.
“It’s for $2,000, dated November the first, 1994. It’s from Little Caesars Enterprises to Riverfront Apartments, and I know it was just one of many,” said Keith, 91, who has been a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Detroit for the last 46 years. “It’s important that people know what Mr. Mike Ilitch did for Ms. Rosa Parks because it’s symbolic of what he has always done for the people of our city.”
On Aug. 31, 1994, Parks, then 81, was robbed and assaulted in her home in central Detroit. Keith called real estate developer Alfred Taubman, the owner of Riverfront Apartments, about finding a safer home for Parks. Taubman pledged to find the best home available.
When Ilitch read about Keith’s plan and Taubman’s promise in the newspaper, he called the judge and said he would pay for Parks’ housing for as long as necessary.
Not to judge too harshly since no one has a more sensitive ego than anyone working in Detroit media, but neither Freep or WDIV go into heavy involvement about Ilitch’s payments to the Parks trust (or even mention the trust at all). Both are quick reads (and extra site traffic sitting right at the intersection of Black History Month and a Big Local News Story) that single out Ilitch, and can be easily misread as Ilitch being the sole payer of Parks’ rent all these years, especially since the three-year-old Sports Business News piece doesn’t mention the other contributors.
It’s the WXYZ story that’s really got everybody screwed up. With a headline blaring “Mike Ilitch paid for Rosa Parks’ housing for more than a decade,” the TV station’s story is just not true. The headline repeats itself on national black media sites and elsewhere. Not true.
By all accounts, but particularly an Associated Press report from December 2004, Parks fell behind on her rent in 2002. That would be eight years after she moved to the apartment in 1994, and that’s certainly less than a decade. Simply put, Ilitch – and he was very good for helping out, don’t get it wrong – could not have been paying for Parks’ rent all that time. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have owed.
Let’s stretch from 1994 to 2004, which would have been a full decade. By this time, according from another AP report in that December 1994 timeframe (both of which, incidentally, cite Free Press reporting; see what happens when y’all don’t search your own archives?), Hartford Memorial Baptist Church had been paying Parks’ rent since August 2003. 1994 to 2003 is not a decade either.
At that time, in December 2004, the Riverfront Apartments offered Parks the opportunity to live rent-free for as long as she chose to live there. Parks died in October 2005, still living in the same apartment. 1994 to 2005 is officially more than a decade, but by that time, Ilitch certainly had no involvement in her expenses if she was living in the place for free.
And there you have it. It’s nit-picky as all hell, but we live in an era of fake news and alternative facts. Let’s be confident enough to present the truth wherever we can.