David Ashenfelter and Cassandra Spratling Free Press Staff Writers
Published 11:30 AM EDT Apr 28, 2019
Detroit’s Damon Keith, the federal judge whose rulings in a string of high-profile cases over three decades catapulted him to the status of national civil rights icon, has died.
He was 96..
Damon J. Keith, a grandson of slaves who rose from humble beginnings in Detroit to become an internationally-revered champion for justice and a much-loved father-figure who launched countless legal careers, died early Sunday morning.
Keith’s rulings in a string of high-profile cases over three decades catapulted him to a civil rights icon.
Lawyers and legal scholars from all over the nation were drawn to his Detroit chambers, a place adorned with photos of the many famous people whose lives he touched, including Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama.
The longest-serving black judge in the nation, Keith was a leading citizen of Detroit — a confidant of elected officials, civic leaders and those who fight for social justice.
His impact on Detroit and his fight for equality under the law is visible from the Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University to his chambers in the federal building on Lafayette Avenue to the Wright Museum of African American History, which Keith rescued from closure several years ago.
“Detroit lost a dear friend this morning with the passing of Judge Damon Keith, and America lost a national treasure,” Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said in a statement.
“Judge Keith left as indelible a mark on this nation and our city as any jurist in history. During his more than 50 years on the federal bench, he handed down rulings that have safeguarded some of our most important and cherished civil liberties, stopping illegal government wiretaps and secret deportation hearings, as well as ending the racial segregation of Pontiac schools. Here in Detroit, he opened the doors for countless young law clerks, many of who have gone on to become judges themselves.”
Michigan Secretary of State Joyce Benson, who clerked for Keith, called Keith her mentor.
“Our country has lost a legal titan who spent more than half a century as a crusader for civil rights,” Benson said. “His decisions from the bench prevented the federal government from infringing on individual liberties and helped to battle systemic racism in corporations, municipalities and schools.”
Son of a factory worker
Keith himself often marveled at how he rose from the son of a Ford factory worker to friend and comrade of the Ford family. His story is well-told in a book that documents his life and work, “Crusader for Justice,” by Peter J. Hammer and Trevor Coleman, released in 2013.
Asked what he wants people to know about him after reading it, Keith said, “He did the best he could with his God-given talent, and he used his life and the law to try to make things better for all Americans.”
Keith burst onto the national stage in 1970 when, as a U.S. District Court judge, he ordered busing to desegregate Pontiac schools. It was the first decision on behalf of federal court-ordered busing outside of southern states.
On the District Court and later with the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Keith wielded the Constitution as a weapon – handing down a remarkable series of landmark decisions that struck blows against segregated schools, employment and housing discrimination, and federal wiretapping policies.
“One cannot be around Damon for very long without sensing his commitment to all that is good about our country,” Judge Peter Fay, of the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Georgia, said in 1998 in nominating Keith for the Edward J. Devitt Distinguished Service to Justice Award.
“But unlike many, he does not limit his commitment to words — his actions speak volumes,” Fay added. “He gets involved. He spends the time. He does the work … there is nothing he will not do if he is convinced it will help others and strengthen our way of life.”
Among his landmark cases: In 1971, Keith ruled that President Richard Nixon and U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell violated the U.S. Constitution by wiretapping student radicals in Ann Arbor without a court order. In 2002, he wrote one of the most quoted phrases in American legal history in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, while he was on the US. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court ruled that deportation hearings held in private was unconstitutional. Keith put it this way:
“Democracies die behind closed doors.”
Faith and great role models
Whenever Keith was asked what drove him to achieve, his answer was the same faith in God and great role models.
From a kid growing up on the segregated streets of Detroit to a student at an all-black college in West Virginia to a budding lawyer at Howard University, Keith credited those who had set the examples for him.
The inspiration began with his father Perry Keith, a $5-an-day Ford Rouge foundry worker who taught his son that he was somebody. It continued with black college professionals who helped Keith realize that he could triumph in a society that was not hospitable to the idea of equal treatment or opportunity for all.
And it took Thurgood Marshall, the fiery civil rights warrior and eventual U.S. Supreme Court justice, to show Keith how he could use the courts and the U.S. Constitution to battle segregation and Jim Crow laws.
“I just feel as though I have an obligation to do something to make things better for all people,” Keith told the Free Press in 2002. “God put me here for some purpose, and I don’t want to let Him down. And I don’t want to let myself down, or my family, my people — or my country.”
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm served as Keith’s law clerk from 1987-88.
“He has been like a father to me,” Granholm once said. “I consult with the judge before every career move I make. He’s like a divining rod — he sets you on the right path.”
Wayne County Circuit Judge Edward Ewell, who clerked for Keith in 1985-87, said he was always available to listen: “He was the same man whether the person coming to see him was a janitor in the building, a secretary, a guard, a mayor or a congressman.”
Keith often acted more like a politician than a federal judge. He made connections with community leaders of all backgrounds. He liked to surround himself with people and treated them with affection. He was a hugger.
Every year, he hosted a Soul Food Luncheon at the federal courthouse in Detroit where members of the legal community, elected officials, corporate leaders and celebrities showed up to network, have a good time and pay homage to a high community achiever that Keith singled out annually.
“It would be so easy to get isolated in these beautiful chambers where you don’t have to run for re-election or see anyone,” Keith once said. “It’s easy, when people are always saying, ’your honor’ and bowing and scraping, to get things out of balance. That’s why it’s important to get out in the community to mingle … and see what the problems are.”
Keith didn’t smoke or drink and rarely swore, but told off-color jokes to male friends, who called him “D.K.”
Former law clerks said he almost never lost his temper, and he prided himself on never using a gavel because he didn’t need it to control his courtroom.
“I’m not a shouter or a banger,” he told the Detroit News in 1975. “If you treat people with respect, you’ll get respect.”
The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights opened at Wayne State University in 2011. The $5.7-million addition to the WSU Law School chronicles Keith’s judicial career, the legal history of the civil rights movement and the accomplishments of African-American lawyers and judges.
The walls of Keith’s chambers are decorated with dozens and dozens of photos of celebrities and civil rights leaders Keith has known over the years, including the late Aretha Franklin and the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“This is a history of my life and experiences,” he once said. “When people come in, they see blacks and whites, rich and poor, the mayor, educators, Henry Ford II, Martin Luther King Jr.”
Keith did have his battles – he butted heads with longtime Detroit NAACP leader Wendell Anthony over management of the organization, which Keith helped pioneer years earlier. And he felt slighted by Wade McCree, the first black U.S. District Court judge in eastern Michigan (whose seat Keith filled in 1967) for not endorsing him for the federal bench.
One of Keith’s biographers, former Free Press editorial writer Trevor Coleman, said the judge sometimes had a difficult time overlooking sleights because he was forever affected by those who said he wasn’t good enough to be a federal judge.
“Some implied that because he didn’t go to an Ivy League school, pass the bar exam the first time out, or work in government as a lawyer, that he wasn’t qualified,” Coleman said. “He spent his lifetime proving them wrong.”
He also spent a lifetime giving back.
When an intruder attacked Rosa Parks in her Detroit home in 1994, Keith arranged through his friend A. Alfred Taubman to have her move into a gated apartment complex on the riverfront.
When she was invited to Montgomery, Ala., to attend the opening of a museum named in her honor, Keith again called on Taubman to fly her in his private jet.
When Parks died in 2005, he chaired the group that planned funerals in three cities.
It was easy for Keith to go to Taubman, a philanthropist, because the two had developed a close bond over many years.
“He’s a highly intelligent man, very hard-working, very determined,” said Taubman, a longtime friend. “I have great admiration for him so it’s not unusual for us to be friends.”
Keith relished being a civic leader, even when it could have gotten him into trouble.
In 2004, he convened a meeting of Detroit political, business and civic leaders at the courthouse to raise $1 million to keep the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History afloat.
Keith insisted that he merely invited the guests but didn’t solicit money, which would have violated the federal judicial code. “We blacks who are in positions of power and authority … have an obligation to save this museum,” he said.
Said Rod Gillum, a General Motors Foundation chairman and museum board member who attended the meeting: “Judge Damon Keith is one of the few individuals who is capable of putting together a group of prominent citizens on such short notice.”
During the 1980s, there was talk that Keith might be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court like his hero, Thurgood Marshall. But it didn’t happen. Republicans controlled the White House in the 1980s, when Keith was in his prime.
If he was disappointed, he never let on publicly.
Though he experienced racism, Keith didn’t let it make him bitter.
When he began practicing law in the 1950s, there were few black lawyers and no black judges.
“Arguing a case before a judge was quite humiliating at times because of the way judges treated black lawyers at that time, “ Keith told the Free Press in 1984. “I’ve had judges in (Detroit) Recorders Court tell me to shut up or sit down or not go any further and, if I did, they’d hold me in contempt.”
The slights didn’t end when he became a judge.
He often told audiences about the time he attended a judicial conference in Virginia after becoming a federal appeals judge. While walking in the hotel parking lot with a white judge, a man drove up, tossed his keys to Keith and asked him to park his car.
Keith’s colleague was horrified, but Keith told him to calm down because he was accustomed to being reminded every day that he was black.
After graduating from law school in 1949, he twice failed his bar exam. He got his law license by appealing the second score and having his grade bumped up to a passing grade.
The episode caused some in Detroit’s black legal community to regard Keith as a legal lightweight and nearly prevented him from being appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. District Court in 1967.
“Up to that point, Damon was well-known for being about in the community, but the so-called conventional wisdom was that he was not a jurisprudential heavyweight,” the late Kenneth Cockrel Sr., the legendary activist lawyer and Detroit city councilman, told the Free Press in 1984. “Many people – and I include myself – were quite pleasantly surprised.”
Keith’s biggest setback came in January 2007. His wife of 53 years, Rachel Boone Keith, a retired internist and racial and gender trailblazer in Detroit’s medical community, collapsed and died.
His wife, the daughter of Baptist missionaries, was born in Liberia. A mutual friend introduced them while she was finishing her residency at Detroit Receiving Hospital. They married two years later, in 1953.
They had three children: Cecile Keith-Brown, Debbie Keith and Gilda Keith and two granddaughters, Nia Keith Brown and Camara Keith Brown. Throughout their marriage, he trekked most Saturday mornings to Eastern Market to buy flowers for her. On Saturday afternoons, they had a standing date to go to the movies.
One of his proudest moments in recent years was watching grand
Keith also had a soft spot for his law clerks.
During four decades on the bench, he hired more women and minority law clerks — African Americans, Hispanics, Asians — than any federal judge. He encouraged them to help others as he had helped them.
“A network of people throughout Michigan and the United States have obtained gainful employment, gone to college or graduate or professional school, secured personal loans, or advanced their careers at crucial stages, as a direct result of selfless efforts by Judge Keith,” said U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay, who clerked for Keith in 1972-73.
Damon Jerome Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922, in a house in near the present I-96 and I-94 freeway interchange.
He was the youngest of seven children of Perry and Annie Louise (Williams) Keith. His father had moved the family from Georgia in the 1920s to get a job in a Ford plant.
Keith once said that “most kids in my neighborhood did not go to college — most went to Jackson prison.” His father insisted that college was in young Damon’s future.
After graduating from Northwestern High in 1939, Keith enrolled at West Virginia State College and worked his way through college by cleaning the chapel and waiting tables in a dining hall.
In 1943, after watching his son graduate, Perry Keith told him: “One of my children has a college degree. Now I can die happy.”
Less than a week later, Perry Keith was dead.
“My father was the finest man I’ve ever known,” Keith told the Free Press in 1998.
After college, Keith was drafted into the segregated U.S. Army and spent three years driving a truck in the Quartermaster Corps during World War II in Europe. Keith called it an “absolutely degrading” partly because the “all-colored” unit didn’t have a single black officer.
He was discharged in 1946 as a sergeant.
“After coming back and having to ride on the back of buses while seeing German soldiers ride in the front and seeing German soldiers go into restaurants in the South that I could not go into, I made up my mind I was going to become a lawyer,” he said in 2002.
He enrolled on the GI Bill at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He helped research civil rights cases, participated in mock trials and watched rising legal stars like Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP’s chief legal counsel, practice his legal arguments and argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
From janitor to federal judge
After getting his law degree in 1949, Keith worked as a janitor at the Detroit News while studying for his bar exam.
He became a $15-a-week clerk for Loomis, Jones, Piper & Colden, a black law firm, and later returned to the firm as a full-fledged lawyer. He received a Master’s in Law in 1956 from Wayne State University and in 1964 opened his own law firm, which eventually became known as Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown & Wahls.
His partners included Nathan Conyers, the eventual Detroit car dealer and brother of former U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. The firm moved into the Guardian Building, becoming the first black law firm in the city’s all-white legal district.
Keith, a Democrat, also served as a Wayne County Commissioner (1958-63), president of the Detroit Housing Commission (1958-67) and co-chair of the state’s first Civil Rights Commission (1964-67).
His big break came in 1967 after President Lyndon Johnson elevated McCree to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.
Keith wanted to fill McCree’s slot, and Johnson wound up selecting him at the request of U.S. Rep. Philip Hart, D-Mich., after Otis Smith, the first black to serve on the Michigan Supreme Court, dropped out to become the first black member of General Motors’ legal staff.
In 1970, after Keith ordered citywide busing to desegregate Pontiac public schools, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to kill him – prompting federal marshals to guard his home. Keith didn’t back down.
“I have not lost one hour of sleep,” he said. “I thrive on making difficult decisions. That is why I enjoy being a federal judge.”
In 1971, Keith ruled that President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell violated the constitutional rights of three radical White Panther Party members, whose phones were tapped without a court order during an investigation of the bombing of a CIA office in Ann Arbor. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld the ruling, which became known as the “Keith Case.”
The same year, Keith ordered the city of Hamtramck to build low-income housing after razing black neighborhoods to make way for the Chrysler Freeway. Keith said the city engaged in “Negro removal” in the name of urban renewal.
In 1973, he ordered Detroit Edison to pay $4 million to black employees who were victims of job discrimination and ordered it to create an affirmative action program. He also ordered the union to pay $250,000 for failing to protect the workers.
“I began to think the blind draw wasn’t blind,” Keith said about being randomly assigned to so many high-profile cases.
In 1974, Keith’s work was recognized by the NAACP, which awarded him its highest honor – the Spingarn Medal.
Then-President Jimmy Carter elevated Keith to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1977.
In 1979, Keith wrote an opinion upholding a lower court decision ordering the Detroit Police Department to carry out Coleman Young’s plan to integrate the department. And in 2002, seven years after going on senior — part-time — status, Keith wrote another opinion that made history, finding that Attorney General John Ashcroft and the George W. Bush administration had to open up deportation proceedings for people linked to terrorism.
The famous line from that opinion – “Democracies die behind closed doors” – became a rallying cry for news organizations battling federal secrecy after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In recounting his legal career, Keith once said: “I really didn’t know what kind of judge I’d be… I knew I wanted to try to be the kind of judge that would make attorneys want to be in his court.
“Putting on the robes can be an awesome responsibility. You have the chance to find out a lot about yourself.
“It’s like Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘If you want to know what a man really is, give him power.’”
In 2009, a CNN reporter ran into Keith and his granddaughter, Camara, who was 12 at the time, while they were in Washington for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
“I’m here today to see this man become president of the United States,” Keith told the reporter, on the verge of tears.
“It’s a great event,” he said. “It shows what can happen in America. We’re a good people.”
One of his proudest moments happened several years ago, May of 2013, when his granddaughter, Nia Keith Brown, graduated from Emory University School of Law. The proud grandpa hooded his granddaughter during the ceremony in Atlanta. A few months later he held a private family ceremony in a federal courtroom where he swore her into the Michigan Bar.
Keith lived the advice he said he’d give today to young lawyers such as Nia.
“I tell them — and this is a phrase that’s so important — they are walking on floors they did not scrub and they’re going through doors they did not open. . . open doors that didn’t open for you so others can come through. We’ve got to leave a legacy.”
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