IN CONVERSATION WITH…
GREG MATHIS, Judge, Political Activist and Author
“My life demonstrates that being removed from a disadvantaged environment with a will to transform your life works. However, I say first that you have to remove yourself from that environment by any means necessary be they physical or spiritual. You must immerse yourself in something else.”
An O.G. (at least that’s what the kids say)
Former Judge of 36th District Court of Michigan
Chairman of Rainbow Push
Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of my nationally syndicated court show ‘Judge Mathis’
An inspirational figure who uses his platform and background to inspire folks to enhance their lives. This is the man I committed myself to become when I was around 17 years old and in jail for weapons possession. I had been there about 8 months at that time. My mother came to visit and shared words that stuck with me and began the transformation of my life. There was, if I am to be completely honest, an adjustment period to me getting on the right track. I didn’t become a saint overnight.
THE PREDATOR OR THE PREY
We all have a survival instinct. I grew up in Herman Gardens Projects, the toughest housing project in Detroit. The circle was full of crime, drugs, and violence and my friends were in that. I did not want to become prey to anyone so I became what I saw meant survival. I became a street youth, but that life did not have my entire focus. I just didn’t know how to get out of the environment yet.
During the 60s, members of The Black Panther Party took up residency throughout the country in some of the most crime infested areas in order to mobilize the people. One of those was in the housing projects I grew up in and my oldest brother was associated with the Black Panther chapter there. He had pictures of Huey Newton on the walls in his room, and books. It all fascinated me because of the strength of black men it was showing. It stayed in my mind because they seemed so strong in comparison to the drug addicts and other men I saw living destructive lifestyles and blaming the other community for their circumstance. Even as a youth, I viewed that sort of blame game as a weakness. I connected the Black Empowerment Movement with courage and manhood.
The main benefit our community received, in addition to ushering mainstream society closer towards negotiating with the non-violent movement of Civil Rights, was the manhood aspect. I think that Malcolm X, more than anyone taught black men courage and manhood—real manhood. That is what I identified with in my brother’s lectures and practice of black activism even if I wasn’t ready to follow his example.
Within two years of my brother leaving to go to college, I was in jail. It was a pivotal moment as it relates to changing my life to appease my mother, but also because I met JESSE JACKSON there. At the time he was going throughout the country’s inner-city high schools and jails with his I AM SOMEBODY tour. There were about thirty of us. I was fascinated as he spoke. I had a frame of reference now because of my brother. I went to him at the end of the lecture and wanted to share with him, “hey I know what you are talking about because I have seen… I have learned… and I can identify...” I said, “I would like work for you in fighting for our equality.”
He looked at me and said straight, “you can’t fight because you don’t have the right weapon. Drop your ‘weapon.’ Pick up your books. Finish College and then you can work with me.”
Five years later when he ran for President of the United States, I approached him at a volunteer/coordinator meeting. I went up to him and reintroduced myself, “I’m the young man you met in prison. You told me that if I went to college and finished that I could work for you. I just finished college and I am ready.” Of course, he didn’t remember me, but he played it off like politicians do (Laughter). He called someone over and instructed them to put me on the campaign to lead the local youth division. That was 1983 and I started working with him immediately and have every since. I am now Chairman of the Board of Rainbow Push.
I didn’t see him much during that first run. I was a worker bee. Four years later when he ran again, I had gained a lot experience and became the Campaign Manager for Detroit. We had a great chance in 1988 to win the Michigan Primary and we won. We were the only northern state his campaign ever won and I was part of that victory. As a result, our relationship became stronger and that association eventually led to Jesse campaigning for me to be a judge. I attribute a lot of my success to him.
Until my work with Jesse Jackson, I was a Black Nationalist, but when I got with him and started to see the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement my ideology changed. I saw the results of changes in legislation that allowed us to gain voting rights, affirmative action, equal rights. I determined Electoral Politics was the best way to help my community. Instead of just “having a fit,” get some power for your community. You don’t have to be anti-white to be pro-black.
I like to pride myself for being different than most people in electoral politics. I had a pure motive for making a difference. At the time, I felt I was turning away from a life of riches to serve and fight for equality. This epiphany came after taking a sociology course that broke down the dynamics of race and class. I identified that with my struggle and the struggles of other poor and/or oppressed people around. It was this that sparked my genuine interest in politics—to serve the people, not gain from them.
I remember my first day in court, in 1995, my entire docket was filled with prostitutes. I gave most of them tickets and a few probation if there were priors. I don’t think I jailed anyone on that day. Within the first six months of being on the bench, I had a former friend come before me. It was a surreal flashback to my life as a street youth. This was the guy I used to run with. We got in a lot of trouble together as kids, and now he is before me for possession of crack and he is very clearly a crack addict. We recognized each other instantly. The prosecutor did not believe me when I acknowledged our pre-existing relationship and recommended recusing myself. They felt that I would remain impartial so I remained on the case. I sentenced him to rehabilitation as it is supposed to be done with most addicts. Ten years later, when I had left the bench and transitioned to television, I saw him again. He came to one of the picnics that I sponsor in the community. It was good to see that he was in a much better way.
I believe that you should vote for your best interests because it is those elected officials who are compatible with your values who will determine if you and your interests are well served. If 100,000 African Americans fail to vote in the state of Michigan because they don’t like Hillary Clinton, then they get Donald Trump. That is to say nothing for the white women who did not vote for her. Your failure to vote is a vote. It is a vote against your own interests and results in putting someone who is working against your values in office. Not voting is a vote against yourself.
Because of my career in politics, I have a skewed view of politicians. It is my observation in working with them all of my adult life that their order of service in the capacity of being a public servant is first and foremost to their own self-interests and re-election. That is the main priority. The interests of their family and friends are second and then the people—the constituents who put them in office come third. So with that view, it really comes down to me having faith in the person who is proposing the policy direction. I have to believe that they really have good values of self-interests at heart. Now ain’t that something (laughter).
I trusted PRESIDENT OBAMA. Many politicians from our communities found fault with some of his actions or failures to enact certain policies. Where I agreed or not, I trusted his moral code and vision. I also know that final decision of said policies are not at the sole discretion of any sitting president. In this current election cycle, there are a few national candidates I trust:
STACEY ABRAHMS (Georgia) - based on her platforms and work in the Georgia Senate.
BENJAMIN JEALOUS (MARYLAND) – from his work in the community from his early days in San Francisco as a journalist to his days as the NAACP President where I served on the National Board.
Equality for all. I have an intense desire for equality. My self-confidence may have a lot to do with that. As a child, my mother and her friends had two descriptions of me: that I was smart and that I was bad. Somehow those two opposing realities made me firm in the conviction of myself, which is why I have always been comfortable with leading.
Confidence allowed me to reject any secondary status ranging from my education to the dynamics of inequality. My sense of egoic self will not allow me to accept any treatment of inequality towards me or towards the people whom I come from and fight for.
I cringe when I see displays of white supremacy, and I am not talking about the radicals roaming about. I am talking about institutional white supremacy—where you have a Silicon Valley made up of only one percent blacks or you have a failed education system in every urban city in America, but privileged education systems in the suburban neighborhoods bordering those cities. Those things you can only attribute to the perceived superiority that is race and class based. So, I say that to say this: equality for all. I resent the suggestion and practice of superiority by the majority of society anywhere.
I don’t feel ‘black guilt’ because I keep close ties with the ones I came up with, but I know that many do not share my beliefs. To a large degree middle-class blacks, particularly the most achieved of the past few generations, have abandoned the impoverished often saying, “I did it so why can’t you?” They came up in an era where they were taught that to survive in America a black person must be twice as good at their craft and at school in order to achieve half of what white people got by being ordinary. So, that is what they did and their reward was to “get out.” I get it, and I reject it in totality. I reject working doubly as hard to get half. I do not accept racism and poverty as a consequence of not working twice as hard. I reject disassociating with the richness of experience and people that motivated them to be who they are and to achieve all that they have.
I’ll even say this, as uneducated and uncultivated as people think that folks living in impoverished communities are, which is totally a stereotype and totally untrue, many of them due to their street wisdom and instincts can analyze things and determine them valid or invalid far quicker than educated people. Even in poverty there is wealth.
NO NEW FRIENDS
Unlike many others in the public eye, I didn’t come up in the business. I went from being on the judicial bench to a national show.
I’ve dealt with the stress of having to show imperfection and the fear of my imperfection being criticized.
I can’t go to the casino. I like going to the fights in Vegas. I like a little black jack and inevitably someone walks by and questions why I am there; if enjoying a recreational time out affects my work.
With all that I now know, and the adjustments I am required to make as a public figure (gilded cage), I would still choose this life because the benefits outweigh the downside. Yes, I am much lonelier than I want to be. I am much more scrutinized than I want to be. Growing up, I never really understood when they said, “it’s lonely at the top,”—not boasting just stating the truth of what I have come to know. If I don’t go back with a person for decades long then it is hard build true friendships because I have found most to be motive-based; nothing pure. The only pure new friendships I have found have come from a few superstars, whose cup runneth over so there is nothing that I can give; who were nice and open enough to lend their friendship to me.
The Evidence Bible by RAY COMFORT. We all have questions about faith and there is nothing wrong with that. How can we not in this world of science and all that we know. The Evidence Bible brings cause and effect. It is not a rejection of those teachings.
The most impactful spiritual comment I have heard from an individual is when MOTHER THERESA said that she struggles sometimes with her faith and belief. That, at times, she struggled to really believe in God, that the scripture is accurate, and that there really is a god who created us. So, if Mother Theresa, who was one of the most dedicated people in modern times to the spiritual principals—whose life was a testimony that she sacrificed her entire existence for—needed confirmation, then surely a lay person has the same need to constantly seek out, question, evaluate, and strengthen their faith. I know I do.
Manhood. Women have done a well in raising boys, but you need a man to teach manhood. Sadly, systemic economic deprivation and education inequity, in part because of racism, has created a lineage of dysfunction and damage (incarceration and addiction). It is to such a great extent that we can’t mentor our way out of this situation with black youths. Therefore we must engage in social justice and fight to lift them up, not lock them up. It takes social service and social justice to empower people who face obstacles and challenges in life based on unfair treatment.
Through the years I have been approached to helm singular projects beyond the work I currently do and have been committed to in Detroit for more than thirty years. However, I don’t see that as the right course. I believe that lending my support, my resources, and my work to trusted national organizations already vested in doing the work—socially and effectively changing public policy—is the best investment. So, I work through and with Rainbow Push, The Fatherhood Movement, NAACP, and My Brother’s Keeper just to name a few.
As men we need to find a balance between the macho and the ethos of sincere emotion.
I express myself—my vulnerability, my machismo, my courage—through the music to which I listen. I take pride in the fact that after more than twenty-five years of marriage, I serenade my wife frequently with love songs. I’m good. Folks say I can sing.
We met in college as I was transforming my life and my mother was passing from cancer. The song that make me think of the great friend and love I found in my wife, and to this day reminds me of happiness, is Stuck On You by LIONEL RICHIE. The exact lyric is, “needed a friend and the way I feel now I guess I'll be with you till the end.”
Beyond that, my playlist is on rotation with FUTURE, DRAKE for hip hop, THE ISLEY BROTHERS for classic soul, ED SHEERAN and SAM SMITH.
5 THINGS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
Current Family and Friends
Knowledge (seeking) and Wisdom (acquiring)
Television: Judge Mathis (it’s a great show). Any show with gangsters and mobsters – you can blame segregation for that! We are all products of our environment in one way or the other.
Sun and Water: Boating and laying out on the beach. I don’t golf or fish because too much time waiting around increases the odds for failure. I told you earlier I have a fear.
Grilling: no explanation needed.
Judge Mathis is an Emmy® winning nationally syndicated, reality-based court show. Check your local listings for air time and channels.