With all due respect to Judge Greg Mathis and his acclaimed 2002 biography “Inner City Miracle,” he is more than that. Like Joseph the Dreamer from the bible, this man’s life is not only A miracle.
Judge Mathis’s story is well known. Growing up in inner-city Detroit, he got caught up in street life and went to jail. But because of a promise to his ailing mother, Mathis decided that he would live and do right. Like Joseph, who went from prisoner to prime minister, Mathis’s story is also one of unwavering faith and determination. In less than 20 years, he went from jail to judge.
Thankfully, folks in the Chicagoland area will get to see Mathis’s remarkable life story up close.
The famous TV judge is set to star in a stage play based on his life titled “Don’t Judge Me,” which debuts at John Ruffin’s Theater 47 in Park Forest.
Earlier this week, The Chicago Defender caught up with Mathis, who spoke about that promise, the fight to get his law license and what he learned about himself after reading the “Don’t Judge Me” script.
Like the man you see on TV, Judge Mathis is every bit as candid and real in actual life.
Tacuma Roeback: For those who may not know about your journey, talk about your childhood growing up in Detroit.
Judge Greg Mathis: I grew up in a tough housing project. Three brothers, a single mother, worked two jobs, overwhelmed with crime, drugs and all the other pathologies we see in impoverished communities. And I fell victim to the peer pressure. You’re either prey or predator. I didn’t want to be prey, so I got involved in street life as a kid.
And that led me ultimately to jail. So, while in jail, my mother came and let me know that I had embarrassed her and the schools, the neighborhood and then the church with my in-and-out of juvenile life. In this instance, I was in Wayne County Jail, and she told me that she returned from the doctor and had just been diagnosed with cancer and had less than a year to live. She asked if I would change my life. And so, if nothing else would change you, that will. Then, after doing that, I got a GED [certificate] and got into Eastern on an affirmative action program. That’s why I’m such a supporter of affirmative action.
Roeback: Eastern Michigan University?
Judge Mathis: Yes, that’s correct. Once I got there, my mom died about three months into my first semester, but she was able to see me go to college, the beginning of the turnaround.
One of the central themes of the stage play is that I was denied my law license for three years, one and a half years by the committee, then a wait for the decision thereafter by the State of Michigan Supreme Court. And so that was something I like to make clear to our brothers and our sisters: that even after you prepare yourself, no one in this system is rolling out the red carpet for you. In fact, they may not want you to be a part of this system. They might fear that you will excel beyond them or out-compete them because that’s just what I did.
In my professional life, it was my desire to contribute to empowering our folks out of those conditions that I was raised in. – Judge Greg Mathis
I went from jail to judge in 15 years. Most of my classmates wanted to be judges. Well, it took them many more years, those who were successful. So that’s what I say. That’s one of the messages: fight back against the crime and the poverty and the drugs and weaponry that’s going on in your community. And then once you fight your way out of that, fight your way into the system to stay. And the essential theme is once again fight. Fight your way out, then fight your way in.
Roeback: What helped sustain you from leaving your old life behind when you were imprisoned to being at Eastern Michigan? What kept you on that path?
Judge Mathis: Initially, it was inspired by my mother, and I felt that any achievement I made was a tribute to her. And so that motivated me. What inspired me, as well, was the leadership that I saw in Detroit and Black leadership around the country. So, I knew that those conditions could be changed — the poverty, the hopelessness, the drugs and guns in our community and the failed education system. So that’s when I began. I majored in college in an effort to fight for social justice and equality.
But what kept me sustained, one of the approaches, is that I had incremental success. That was my mindset. That’s what I also suggest to others. In other words, when I got my GED, it was a big celebration. When I got admitted to Eastern, it was a big celebration. The second year, when I knew I could make it through college, it was a big celebration. When I finished, big celebration. So every celebration, that incremental success, keeps you motivated and inspired to continue.
In my professional life, it was my desire to contribute to empowering our folks out of those conditions that I was raised in. And I found that through civil rights and electoral politics, and thus became a member and leader of Rainbow PUSH, which I am now chairman of the PUSH Excel division—and working for [former] Mayor [Coleman] Young [of Detroit] and the City Council. That’s where that led me and then ultimately being elected judge.
Roeback: What was it like going through the process of seeing a play being made about your life? What did you learn? How would you describe that experience? Because I don’t think many people get to have that happen to them in their lifetimes.
Judge Mathis: The script is based on the book, “Inner City Miracle,” my biographical book from 2002. And maybe when I was writing that book, it didn’t sting as much. But what I came away with is that I was more of a predator than I knew. In fact, I cringe when I see the amount of crime and the reactions and responses to crime because street kids don’t read the news.
We don’t know, hear or watch the news. We don’t know that a smash-and-grab has such a major reaction to the public. We don’t know that carrying guns is such a major issue with the public. We don’t know that armed robberies damage people for life — traumatizes them. We don’t know that breaking into folks’ houses is such a violation and trauma. You know, if you’re doing it, nobody’s there. Or if you’re robbing somebody, you take the money, and they leave and they never think about it again. Well, no, you’ve traumatized them for life. So that’s what I gather, that my actions were worse than I even thought they were.
Roeback: For people seeing “Don’t Judge Me” for the first time, what do you want them to get out of that experience?
Judge Mathis: I want them to be inspired and to know that there’s a roadmap. And that roadmap is to force feed your young people, your children, a sense of morality through spirituality or whatever avenue they might find their natural laws that contribute to prosperous or constructive lifestyles.
And so first, find what inspires you. And then secondly, prepare yourself and prepare yourself for a system that might not be very inviting, and then fight. Fight for access, fight for success despite the institutions that might not want you there. We know that’s what systemic racism is.
What we’re saying is fight your way out of the streets by first programming your children with the tools that they can use when they’re ready to turn their lives around. And then fight once you have those tools. Fight for access to the institutions that we have contributed to building.
For More Information
Who/What: Judge Greg Mathis stars in “Don’t Judge Me”
When: Friday, Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 11 (2 Shows) at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Nov. 12 (2 Shows) at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Where: John Ruffin’s Theater 47 (371 Artists Walk,
Park Forest, IL)
What Else: For tickets and more information, visit www.dontjudgemelive.com