Mike Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars Pizza (Pizza!) and the longtime owner of his hometown Detroit Tigers and Red Wings, died on February 10 at the age of 87. Following the news of his death, there's been renewed interest in a charming story that first popped up three years ago: for the last decade of her life, Ilitch paid Rosa Parks' rent without fanfare.
If you need a quick history refresher, here it is. On December 1, 1955, Parks, a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus after a long day of work. Her refusal to get up, and subsequent arrest, was a catalyst for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a resilient 381-day stand that would prove foundational to the civil rightsmovement. The immediate aftermath, however, drove Parks out of Alabama—death threats, harassing phone calls, and loss of employment for her and her husband. She moved to Detroit in 1957.
The civil rights pioneer who defied segregation—she would never pay the $14 she was fined—was confronted with another type of type of violence in 1994. Parks was robbed of $50 and assaulted by a drunk man in her central Detroit home at the age of 81. This is where Ilitch comes into the picture. Following Parks' assault, Judge Damon Keith enlisted a local real-estate developer named Alfred Taubman to help find her a safer home. Ilitch saw the story in the paper and contacted Judge Keith, saying he would foot Parks' bill for as long as necessary.
Ilitch was known for his charitable endeavors such as the Love Kitchen, a mobile restaurant for the less fortunate, and a program that helped military veterans set up discounted franchises, but the Rosa Parks situation wasn't for public adulation. It was a quiet gesture, unknown until a 2014 Sports Business Journal report:
"In his chambers in Detroit, Judge Damon Keith holds a copy of a check in his hand and has a story to tell…
'It's for $2,000, dated November the first, 1994. It's from Little Caesars Enterprises to Riverfront Apartments, and I know it was just one of many,' said Keith, 91, who has been a U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Detroit for the last 46 years. '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.'"
Parks lived out her life at the Riverfront Apartments, passing away on October 24, 2005, at the age of 92. She became the first woman, and second African-American, to lie in honor in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.