Jim Leyland, Judge Keith join in star-studded night

by | Oct 27, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

As Jim Leyland made the rounds of the losing clubhouse last weekend, he got hugs and slaps from his players and coaches. If you were making a sociological study, it would have read: white man, late 60s, from Ohio, hugs young black man from Florida, beefy Venezuelan third baseman, Cuban catcher …

There’s a similar scene that takes place every year in the Detroit chambers of U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith, the 91-year-old civil rights icon, at his annual Soul Food Luncheon. There, Keith, the grandson of a southern slave, slaps and hugs hundreds of attendees of every creed, color and religious persuasion.

These are the kind of scenes that don’t often make headlines — as opposed to whenever the races clash.

But they are the reason behind a unique night at the Fox Theatre on Nov. 11 to honor Jim Leyland, Judge Keith and a parade of people who demonstrate how we do get along — from Matthew Stafford, Barry Sanders, Lloyd Carr, Jimmy Howard and Willie Horton from the world of sports, to the Four Tops and Kem from the world of entertainment, to Tim Meadows (“Saturday Night Live”) from the world of comedy, to Carmen Harlan, Devin Scillian, Alan Lee, Ken Brown, Carolyn Clifford, Bernie Smilovitz, Amy Lange, Mason, Paul W. Smith, Mike Stone, Blaine Fowler and many others from news, TV and radio and politics.

It’s called Detroit Legacies: In Black and White — an event I am proud to cohost with Judge Keith. Because enough with the negative. That’s not who we are. And for one big night, we’re going to remind ourselves of it.

The skipper and the judge

Know this: Damon Keith, out of law school, had to clean bathrooms as a janitor in Detroit. When a white employee saw him with a law book, he laughed and said, “Keep mopping.”

Years later, Keith, then 68, was an esteemed federal judge being honored at a national conference in Virginia. He was waiting in front of a hotel when a white man drove up, tossed the keys at him and said, “Boy, park this car.”

Through it all — a segregated Army, the Detroit riots of 1943 and 1967, death threats when he made rulings that stopped racism and discrimination in schools, cities and workplaces — Keith never used the word “hate.” He didn’t allow it in his home.

Jim Leyland was the same way. The son of a glass factory foreman, one of seven kids, the only color he knew was blue, as in blue collar. He played with and later managed players from other races and countries. Somehow, they all loved him. He cried when the Tigers won the division last month, then was carried off by Torii Hunter for a champagne shower.

When he announced he was retiring as Tigers manager, the outpouring of respect crossed all lines.

As it will on Nov. 11 — which Detroit Mayor Dave Bing’s office will be declaring Jim Leyland Day. It’s a chance to show appreciation for a job done well and with class.

Music, charity and books

That night, on stage at the Fox, Leyland will talk to the crowd about his career and how he managed everyone from Barry Bonds to Miguel Cabrera without seeing skin color, and Stafford will talk about living in a sport where you can’t see color and win. Kem and the Four Tops will talk about how music breaks down barriers — and perform to prove it — and so many others will share, laugh and revel in the spirit of cooperation that often gets overlooked.

Every dime raised will go to charity, to help people who are working but poor, homeless people, illiterate adults, talented Detroit students and a civil rights center that stands for what we as Americans — and specifically as Detroiters — have dealt with and overcome.

Tickets are just $40, and everyone attending will be given an autographed copy of my new novel, “The First Phone Call from Heaven,” a small way for me to thank my city. They also will get a discounted coupon for Judge Keith’s book, “Crusader For Justice,” due out later in the month.

Mostly, they’ll get an amazing night of people never before assembled on one stage. But that’s the idea. You never know in life who you’ll one day be next to.

For tickets, go to www.ticketmaster.com,www.olympiaentertainment.com or call 800-745-3000.

Come say thanks to Jim Leyland and Judge Keith — and be part of the story that doesn’t get written enough.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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