A tribute to the judge who never stopped fighting — for civil rights, fairness and equality for all.
Originally published on Nov. 4, 2013, updated on May 15, 2019.
One of the longest-running-and exclusive-historical exhibits in Detroit isn’t hanging at the Charles H. Wright Museum or the Detroit Historical Museum. Rather, it’s tucked away in the anteroom to the chambers of Damon J. Keith, senior judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, where seemingly every prominent African-American of the 20th century (and a noteworthy number of whites as well) can be found in the carefully framed photos covering every square inch of its walls.
Look, there’s Thurgood Marshall. Bill Cosby. Coleman Young and Rosa Parks. Cicely Tyson. President Bill Clinton. And …
It’s a history lesson in pictures, and hundreds of Michigan’s most illustrious citizens are lucky to see it when they pack this space on the second floor of the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse every year for Keith’s fabled Black History Month Soul Food Luncheon, marking 26 years last February.
But to be here alone, drinking in the images – and not be in trouble! – feels like a rare and special privilege. There’s almost a twinge of regret when the massive wooden door opens (just one more minute … ) and Keith emerges, extending a still-strong hand of welcome.
The Legend, The Legacy
“Good to see you,” he smiles, his high, raspy voice a decibel above a whisper. He is 91, dressed in a rust-colored sweater fastened close to the neck. He seems dwarfed by the commodious dimensions of his office, also filled with photographs comingled with the multitude of awards and accolades this lion of the law has accumulated since taking the federal bench in 1977.
Yet Keith doesn’t look frail or doddering. He looks … precious, like a unique, priceless resource that needs to be protected and preserved. Then it hits you: That’s exactly what he is.
This proud son of Detroit, who was mentored by an eventual Supreme Court justice and became mentor to countless African-Americans and women (including prominent lawyers, judges and a Michigan governor) …
This brilliant legal mind whose decisions on school desegregation and discrimination in housing and employment altered society who faced down President Nixon over the issue of illegal wiretapping …
This champion of civil rights who marched with Dr. King and whose name adorns a gleaming new “center for civil rights” within the Wayne State University Law School …
He is a wealth of wisdom and perspective. And much of that history is encased for in Keith’s first-ever biography Crusader for Justice, being published this month by Wayne State University Press. It’s been five years in the making.
“So many people had approached me and said, ‘Judge Keith, it’s important that people realize your struggle and your successes, the cases that you’ve handled, all the opportunities you’ve had. Why don’t you write a book? I said, ‘Well, I don’t like to use the personal pronoun ‘I,’ but maybe somebody can do it for me.’”
“Somebody” turned out to be the respected Detroit journalist Trevor W. Coleman – “who, as you know, is a black man,” says Keith. “He had to interview a lot of people, just so many people, and he went through my cases very carefully, and my life. I am absolutely pleased with the result.”
A Personal Journey
Like other great black firsts, such as baseball legend Jackie Robinson and President Barack Obama, Keith is credited for his demeanor in the face of bigotry. Comedian Bill Cosby, one of the notables on his photo wall, says that is one of the first things to understand about Keith’s journey.
“The control of his emotions while hatred pursued him. To continue on the journey against great odds. To become Judge Damon Keith, that part of the United States of America, Michigan’s history, is a great paradigm,” Cosby tells BLAC.
That trait reached its apex upon returning home after serving in the segregated U.S. Army and earning his law degree at Howard University, where his professors included future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The best job he could find was cleaning toilets at the Detroit News, knowing he was capable of greater things and struggling to accept his circumstances.
As recounted in his new biography:
Every flush reminded him that after leaving home 10 years earlier and traveling the world, he was back in Detroit-working as a janitor. As he mopped and scrubbed, he had to force a smile and cheery hello to the newsmen who walked in and out of the bathroom or stood at the urinals, barely acknowledging his presence.
Once, while trying to get away from the noisy basement where the janitors would gather for their breaks, he tried eating his lunch in a quiet hallway, hoping to sneak in a few minutes of study. Leaning against the wall with his mop and bucket beside him, he nibbled on a sandwich while propping up Ballentine’s Law Dictionary in his arms. As he stared at the pages of the book and softly recited legal terms to himself, he didn’t notice a familiar newsman walking toward him.
“What are you reading?” the newsman asked at the sight of the thick dictionary cradled in the young man’s arms.
“Just a law dictionary, sir,” he said.
He felt a strange sense of tension and pride as he looked into the eyes of the newsman, who appeared perplexed at the sight of a Black janitor studying from a law dictionary. “Law dictionary? What are you reading that for?” the newsman asked incredulously.
“Because I’m studying for the bar exam. I’m going to be a lawyer,” the young man said proudly.
The newsman went silent. Turning away to walk into the bathroom, he looked over his shoulder at the young man, stopped and laughed. “A Black lawyer? Yeah, right.
“You better keep mopping,” he said, as the door closed behind him.
Extending A Hand
Never forgetting his obstacles, Keith dedicated himself to mentoring young black and female attorneys. “You never know who you touch,” he says. “It has been said that I have hired more black lawyers and women as law clerks than any other federal judge in the country. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I tried to have the sense that I have an obligation to touch who I could.”
His extraordinary roster of former clerks includes Judge Eric Clay, who now sits on the Sixth Circuit bench with him, Lani Guinier, the first tenured African-American female professor at Harvard Law School, and former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
“The judge has been my touchstone – really, my father in Michigan,” says Granholm. “He’s just been so incredibly nurturing to all our careers. I felt so privileged to be working for him to begin with but also being able to go to all the events he would go to. He would always bring all his clerks and administrative assistants.”
Strides, Yet So Far to Go
Because of Keith’s life’s arc, Crusader for Justice is a study of the Civil Rights Movement as well as his biography and, at his age, he’s able to take the long view.
“The progress we’ve made, not only with Barack Obama and Eric Holder, but there wasn’t a Black judge in Detroit after I finished law school in 1949,” Keith says. “And a number of the black lawyers were working in the post office at night, then going over to Recorder’s Court and sitting in the jury box waiting for an assignment.
“There were no integrated (police) scout cars, no blacks riding on the mounted police or patrolling on motorcycles. There were few Blacks in the police department. And if you and I were standing on the corner, the ‘Big Four’ – that’s what they were called, Detroit police units that ran around in limousines – would roll up on us and say, ‘You boys get off this corner. When we come back, you better be off.’ And you’d get off that corner. If the police beat you up, they would claim self-defense. ‘This man acted up.’
“And so the struggle has gone on,” Keith says. “I have to thank God for the progress that we’ve made in this country, and it’s been tremendous. Tremendous. But in closing, I want to say to you in all sincerity that there’s not a day that goes by that in some way, large or small, I’m not reminded of the fact that I’m black. Still.”
Originally published on Nov. 4, 2013, updated on May 15, 2019.