In a case on a recent episode of his TV court room show, Judge Greg Mathis recounted a story of a “lifelong friend” to a heartbroken mother who took custody of her heroin and fentanyl addicted daughter’s two children. The mother was now in front of Mathis suing that daughter for stolen money. “I know two families very, very close to me who went through that and gave up their kids,” said Mathis. “The most immediate family member, their mother, was a crack addict, and delivered the child right there in the crack house. Had eight children. All taken from her. And my best friend, my very best, lifelong friend, he had to raise four children alone—two girls, two boys. Now he’s raising two of his grandchildren,” he said. His immediate family member searched their mother down wanting to meet her. They finally found her when she came before Mathis for drugs while he was a judge in Detroit. He ended up sentencing her to rehab. The story had such an impact on the defendant that—after ruling for the plaintiff—she let Mathis place her in rehab.
These stories of addiction are all too common for daily viewers of Judge Mathis, which only seem to have continued to increase during the shows nineteen years on the air. Yet what sets Mathis’ show apart from other daytime courtroom fare is his personal experience with the crack epidemic of the 80’s and early 90’s—and its devastating impact on the African-American community. It’s that reason he’s able to speak with authority when addressing the pervasive nationwide opioid crisis.
I spoke to Judge Mathis in the beginning of 2008 for the April issue of Salon City.
Judge Greg Mathis was elected to Michigan’s 36th District Court in 1995. His election became a national success story and a symbol of hope for urban youth who are struggling to overcome the modern-day pressures and hardships of poverty, drugs, and violence. A former street youth and high school dropout, Mathis’ lawlessness brought him before a judge who cared, a judge who ordered the teenaged dropout to either get a G.E.D or face jail time. He got his degree, and then went on to become a committed civil right activist, public servant, and the youngest elected judge in the state of Michigan. Currently he is the star of the Warner Bros. TV show Judge Mathis.
Judge Greg Mathis isn’t putting on a show for the cameras; he’s as real as the crack addicted teen mothers he fights so hard to help, the ones others have overlooked. “When I was practicing—representing juveniles—I got frustrated that judges were not very compassionate,” he says. “They were just kind of warehousing the young people in prison.” If it seems like he’s taking the problem personally, it’s because he is. Mathis himself is a former troubled youth. But now, with the inspirational youth program he’s put in place, Judge Mathis is going to make sure that others get the same opportunity he received to bring out the light from within.
COOL FOR SCHOOL
Mathis believes, regardless of a person’s background, that there is inner beauty in everyone. Finding it in many of today’s youths is the tricky part, though. “Glorifying destructive lifestyles is definitely something I see as troubling,” he says. “They think it’s cool to engage in violence, yet many of them think it’s uncool to seek, and achieve, excellence through education.”
To counter this negative thinking, the judge established Young Adults Asserting Themselves. The non-profit agency, which is based in Detroit, is dedicated to promoting positive youth development. “This is the 21st year of the youth agency,” Mathis says. “I wanted to help lift a lot of the other youths the way I did for myself. So I started working out of churches and recreation centers and ultimately acquired offices. My wife established a chain of non profit pre-schools—five to be exact.”
Mathis’ voice changes from the voice of community leader to that of a protective father. “Youth are the most impressionable,” he insists, “and living on the verge of success or failure, typically. Then they come before me, and it allows me an opportunity to help give an impression.”
The judge plans to visit colleges, universities, and cities to educate students on true black culture and history while also serving as an inspiration. “Our contributions are often neglected,” Mathis says. “The focus in America is primarily on slavery, but people forget that our history is a great history of hundreds of years of world domination that is not reflected in our history books. Egypt is not even reflected as an African country, and it was the first and greatest African civilization. Outside of that, we find that they depict Africa as a backward, impoverished continent consisting primarily of half-naked tribes who are, for the most part, uncivilized, when really there are many highly developed countries on the continent of Africa.”
Even with a hit TV show, countless college visits, and what many deem a glamorous life, the married father of four still has time to take on the challenges of underprivileged youths. “I’m now on a national crusade called the Youth and Education Crusade that is sponsored by my youth agency and community center,” he says. Could taking his message globally be a possibility? “Well, we have hit six cities thus far,” he says. “We have many more to go.”
For more on Judge Greg Mathis visit www.askjudgemathis.com
PDF’s of the original published interview: