In 1994, Rosa Parks was robbed and beaten at her home in Detroit.
In the aftermath of the crime, Damon Keith said, he wanted to help Parks, who refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus in 1955, move someplace better. And some members of the community chipped in to help make that happen, said Keith, a federal judge who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Detroit.
According to Keith, one of those people was Mike Ilitch, owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Tigers and founder of Little Caesars Pizza, who this month died at 87.
“I don’t know if you remember, but Rosa Parks was beaten up by some bum in her neighborhood years ago,” Keith said in a phone interview with The Washington Post, as he recounted the story Thursday. “I had represented Rosa, so I called Mike Ilitch. I said, ‘Mike, I don’t want Rosa Parks going back into the same neighborhood that she was in when this bum beat her up.’ He said okay.”
This is how Ilitch — who bought the Red Wings in 1982 and saw them win the Stanley Cup four times under his ownership — came to help a civil rights icon when she was in need.
“He took care of her,” Keith said.
Anyway, back to Keith’s story. Keith said he delivered his message to “the whole community,” asking for funds to help put Parks in a decent place to live. When Keith called Ilitch, the Little Caesars founder asked what he could do to help. Keith told Ilitch he could chip in some funding.
That, Keith said, is what Ilitch did, sending in $2,000 checks. Others in the community also sent money, Keith said, but Ilitch was a “big donor” in the effort, according to Keith. In fact, Keith called him the “lead donor.”
“He loved her and he kept her up,” Keith said. “He said whatever she needs, I will take care of it, Damon.”
Keith wasn’t sure exactly how long Ilitch sent in money, or how much his gifts totaled over the years. Regardless, Keith said, the effort demonstrates that Ilitch and his wife, Marian, were committed to the city of Detroit and “loved Rosa Parks.”
“You don’t find people like Mike and Marian often, who want to help when they’re needed,” Keith said.
The Sports Business Journal published a story about Ilitch’s gift in 2014, which recently resurfaced again following Ilitch’s Feb. 10 death. Ilitch is survived by his wife, Marian, as well as seven children.
“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,” Keith told the Sports Business Journal at the time.
Brian Calley, the lieutenant governor of Michigan, posted the article on his Facebook page Saturday, writing: “This article is from February of 2014. It will give you a sense of the kind of man Mike Ilitch was.”
The gift is also mentioned in a June 2016 letter that Keith sent to Mike and Marian Ilitch.
“Mike, on another note, I was looking over my file for Rosa Parks, specifically, after she was beaten up and we rallied together to get her in the Riverfront Apartments (where she remained until her passing),” it states. “As usual, you wasted no time jumping to action. I recall, you and Little Ceasars [sic] sent many checks on behalf of Mrs. Parks (a copy of one such check is enclosed).”
It was; the copy of a $2,000 check was included in a PDF of Keith’s letter sent to The Post.
When asked about the gift to Parks, a spokesman for the Ilitch organization declined to comment in an email to The Post.
In 2004, when Parks was 91 and struggling with dementia and other health issues, Riverfront Associates, which owned the apartment where Parks lived, said that she could remain in her home rent-free, according to the Associated Press.
The offer stood for the remainder of Parks’s life; she died the next year.
Before that, her rent had reportedly been paid by a church in Detroit. The Rev. Charles Adams said that the church had been paying Parks’s rent since August 2003.