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Alum leads purposeful life mentoring, preserving civil rights legacies

August 19, 2013

Gregory J. Reed’s clients include icons of civil rights, entertainment, politics, sports

Detroit attorney Gregory J. Reed has represented civil rights icons, written award-winning books and preserved and exhibited priceless artifacts and legacies of African-American history — all part of his goal to lead a purposeful life.

“A man of strong faith, I have actively sought to keep my mind and heart open , and, as a result, I found many mentors, people I call angels, who have been willing to guide me from time to time or to pass on the baton of life that has allowed me to run in the race of life,” he said.

Reed is accomplished in a variety of fields, and has long served as a mentor himself through his preservation efforts, his book writing and his life’s actions, starting even before he earned his law degree from Wayne State University Law School in 1974 and his master of laws degree from Wayne in 1978.

He is the author of 16 books, including his latest — Obama Talks Back: Global Lessons – A Dialogue with America’s Young Leaders, which was awarded the 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature and is nominated for a Phillis Wheatley 2013 book Award. He was honored by President Obama and Michelle Obama with a private inscribed commendation for his support in engaging youth in meaningful dialogue. His 1994 book, Economic Empowerment through the Church, won a 1994 American Book Award.

A specialist in entertainment law, intellectual property law and tax law, Reed has served as attorney for civil rights icon Rosa Parks; Dr. Charles H. Wright, a noted obstetrician and civil rights activist for whom the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit is named; former Detroit Mayor Coleman Young; and famous sports figures including six world boxing champions. He also has helped many A-list singers, including Kid Rock, Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker, with their careers.

Along the way, he has collected and preserved artifacts and legacies of African-American historical significance, including slave papers, Motown memorabilia and the handwritten notations of Malcolm X’s autobiography. Reed founded the nonprofit Keeper of the Word Foundation in 1996 to ensure that his collection will be passed on to future generations.

He also has produced exhibits of his collection in major museums, including (with Tavis Smiley) “America I Am: The African-American Imprint,” which premiered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia in 2009; a 2008 exhibit, “Dear Mr. Mandela … Dear Mrs. Parks: Children’s Letters, Global Lessons,” which premiered at the Michigan State University Museum and Nelson Mandela Museum in South Africa in the first international exhibit of its kind; and a traveling music exhibit, “100 Plus One … Before Motown and Beyond, Celebrating America’s Music,” which premiered at Chicago’s Dusable Museum of African American History and set attendance records there.

On Detroit

“The greatest strength of Detroit is its blue-collar mindset and its resiliency.”

Reed has traveled the world and forged friendships with the rich and famous, but his heart has always been in Detroit, where he grew up and still has a law office in a restored firehouse on Bagley Street in Corktown.

“The city has so much to offer African-Americans and others of diverse backgrounds when we give life a chance and get involved, despite the obstacles every human will encounter due to the small mindedness that exists in all races of people,” he said. “The greatest strength of Detroit is its blue-collar mindset and its resiliency. To keep the city going in a positive direction will require an open mindset and unification with inclusiveness for all people sharing ideas with a can-do, entrepreneurial spirit, knowing that we are all in this together. There is something we all can do, and it starts with each and every one of us.

“We must all be more open-minded to advance the region, the state and America. This is one of the reasons why I launched in 2009 the Detroit Entertainment Commission to promote and create an economic stimulus and employment base for Detroit.”

On early education

“Dr. Green molded me in a way that taught me to enter the race of life as a participant and not as a spectator.”

The first “angel” in Reed’s life was his mother, who taught him to value education and work. And then there was a high school counselor — Alma Whitley — at Southwestern High School. She was a strict disciplinarian, who was feared by some students, including him, before he got to know her.

“By her guidance, I became one of Detroit Public Schools’ first National Merit Scholars and class president,” Reed said. “She became my angel of guidance. She helped many others to realize their life’s goals, as well.”

He went on to Michigan State University, where he met new mentors, including Professor Harry Stephens and civil rights activist Dr. Robert Green.

“Dr. Green molded me in a way that taught me to enter the race of life as a participant and not as a spectator,” Reed said. “Because of Dr. Green’s encouragement, I have made many friendships from around the country, including Dr. Clifton Wharton Jr., the first African-American president of a major U.S. university (MSU).”

Green also advised Reed to meet Coleman Young, then serving as a Michigan senator.

“Dr. Green stated that Coleman Young would one day be a great leader and that he would need supporters like me,” Reed said.

He met Young and was inspired by his goal of becoming Detroit’s first African-American mayor.

“I got on board as one of his campaign researchers, never knowing history was in the making,” Reed said.

On Wayne Law

“They were good role models.”

With a degree in packaging engineering from MSU under his belt, Reed found  himself limited in his ability to help others advance. So, he decided to go to law school, and chose Wayne, where he gained more mentors, including professors Edward Littlejohn, Fredrica Lombard., John Mogk and Alan Schenk.

“They were good role models,” Reed said. “The environment was tough. There were only 15 African-Americans in the class, and only two of us graduated on time. Then, I decided to distinguish my degree from the other lawyers. I got a master of laws in taxation and was the first to achieve the degree in this state. There were less than 12 African-Americans in the United States with the degree. There were only 10 schools that issued the degree in the United States at the time, and WSU was one of them.”

As a child, Reed collected international stamps. As a law student, Reed started collecting slave papers.

“It dawned on me about preserving culture and legacies and how important it was to preserve art, culture and history in order to help others understand the importance of advancing humanity,” he said.

On the rise to influence

“Detroit has had so many angels, leaders and supporters who were great warriors and doers.”

About the same time, Reed began representing athletes as an agent. He drew the interest of law firm Goodman Eden Millender and Bedrosian.

“I met attorney Robert Millender, the Detroit political kingmaker at the firm,” Reed said. “Mr. Millender became a mentor of mine. I never knew he was the angel who would guide Coleman Young, Erma Henderson (the first African-American woman to serve on Detroit’s City Council), Congressman John Conyers, Secretary of State Richard Austin and many others destined to be prominent or the first in their professional positions.”

Detroit’s Millender Center is named in honor of Millender, a civil rights activist who was the driving force behind early African-American political power in Detroit and beyond. The Robert L. and Louise Millender Memorial Lecture series at Wayne State also honors his memory.

“Detroit has had so many angels, leaders and supporters who were great warriors and doers,” Reed said. “The city and its people prepared many of the nation’s leaders. I have learned that if you are sincere and want to do something worthwhile, Detroit has angels who will help you.”

As a newly minted attorney, Reed became an agent for professional athletes and entertainers. In 1980, he was hired to help work out some tax planning for the Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman boxing event in Zaire. Then, he was drafted to resolve tax problems holding up a Detroit match featuring Thomas Hearns and Pepino Cuevas. Thereafter, Reed was appointed to negotiate the $30 million fight between Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard. That was a key point in Reed’s legal career. His reputation made, he went on to represent athletes and entertainers of the highest echelon for three decades, all the while maintaining his interest in collecting and preserving history.

In 1990, another key event in his life took place, seemingly out of the blue.

“Mrs. Rosa Parks walked into my office and asked me to be her attorney,” Reed said. “She  was one of the most notable great persons I ever met, a saint above all who prepared me to be more humble in all of my affairs.”

Reed created a plan to resurrect her legacy, which was largely overlooked at the time, he said. With his guidance and promotion, Parks was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Congressional Gold Medal. A U.S. postage stamp was created in her honor, as was a museum in Montgomery, Ala. And as a result, her “quiet strength” — a term coined by Reed — lives on to inspire new generations.

Two years later, Reed was appointed to serve as the attorney for Nelson Mandela’s Detroit committee in preparation for the South African icon’s first visit to the city. But he didn’t actually met Mandela until 2008, when Reed served as his personal escort to the South African exhibit of “Dear Mr. Mandela … Dear Mrs. Parks: Children’s Letters, Global Lessons.” That exhibit will be shown in 2014 at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky.

“The irony of it is that I was chosen to be a part of the original planning committee f or that center to have it built,” Reed said. “Now the center will have one of my exhibits. I was also once selected as the co-chairman to host Muhammad Ali’s Detroit visit and accompanied him during his visit.”

On his own legacy

“We cannot allow the gains we have made to erode.”

Reed, who has helped to preserve the legacy of so many people, hopes his own legacy is one that helps to inspire all people, despite their circumstances.

“I have used the scarce resources of what I had to advance humanity despite the odds that were against me and so many others,” he said.

“My message to Detroit and to the world is that we must come together and live as one. We cannot allow the gains we have made to erode. Although we have a long way to go, I do believe that we can achieve Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for a better world. From time to time, I catch a glimpse of that world. I can see a world where children do not learn hatred in their homes. I can see a world where mothers and fathers have the last and most important word. I can see a world in which all adults protect the innocence of child ren. I can see a world in which people do not call each other names based on skin color. I can see a world free of acts of violence.

“I can see a world in which people of all races and all religions work together to improve the quality of life for everyone. If we will look to God and work together — not only here but everywhere — then others will see this world, too, and help to make it a reality.”

Photo captions:

Gregory J. Reed

Obama Talks Back: Global Lessons – A Dialogue with America’s Young Leaders is one of 16 books Gregory J. Reed has written.

Gregory J. Reed received a 2013 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature for Obama Talks Back: Global Lessons – A Dialogue with America’s Young Leaders.

Gregory J. Reed poses with Rosa Parks and President Bill Clinton. Reed made a presentation to Clinton of Quiet Strength: The Faith, the Hope, and the Heart of a Woman Who Changed a Nation, the book Reed co-authored with Parks in honor of Clinton’s mother, who had died. The book led to Parks being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal and Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Angela Bassett and Gregory J. Reed attend the Detroit premiere of The Rose Parks Story in 2002. Bassett starred as Parks in the movie.

South African President Nelson Mandela and his wife, Graça Machel, pose with Gregory J. Reed. When this photo was taken, Reed was appointed as the personal escort of Mandela during the premiere of the first international collaborative exhibit between South Africa and America in history for the exhibit “Dear Mr. Mandela … Dear Mrs. Parks: Children’s Letters, Global Lessons.”

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