CrimeJudge Damon J. Keith funeral: Mourners gather, streets jammed
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Friends, family, colleagues and admirers of Judge Damon J. Keith turned out Monday morning at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit to celebrate his life of service and to bid farewell.
Keith, a senior judge on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, was born on Independence Day in 1922 and became a crusader for freedom and civil rights in a 96-year-long life devoted to public service.
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The grandson of slaves, Keith was the longest-serving black judge in the country when he died April 28 at his home in Detroit.
The homegoing celebration started at 10 a.m. Monday at the church in Northwest Detroit. Burial is to follow at Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley.
Annette Madison, 62, of Detroit had tears in her eyes as she approached Hartford Memorial Baptist Church on Monday.
She said she came to Hartford to pay tribute to a man who inspired her to continue working to better herself. “I went back to school myself, she said. I am studying music right now at Wayne State. He was very inspiring, very encouraging.”
Before the program began former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing said Judge Keith gave him a lot advice through the years — even before he became mayor.
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“He was a father figure to me. He was a mentor and just s great guy. I have known him for 50 years. His legacy is one of leadership, one of mentoring, one of justice, and fighting for the right causes.”
Lillian Lockhart-Walls said she came to the funeral for Judge Keith because he felt like extended family to her. His niece, she said, was one of her best friends from childhood.
“Living in Detroit, everyone grew up knowing about Judge Keith,” she said. “We are going to miss him.”
Kathleen Straus, who served three, eight-year terms on the state Board of Education, said she first met Keith when he was chairman of the NAACP dinner.
“We have known each other and worked on common causes over the years,” said Straus, who smiled when she said she is 95, “just one year younger than Damon. He was a dear friend for more than 60 years.
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“He has done so many things. He was a good human being for starters, and so many of his decisions were groundbreaking. They changed the country for the better.”
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A legacy of service
Keith's rulings in landmark cases were rooted in a desire to change the nation so others wouldn't have to experience the segregation and inequalities of his past.
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"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 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.
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 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."
When an intruder attacked Rosa Parks in her Detroit home in 1994, Keith arranged through his friend A. Alfred Taubman, the late shopping mall magnate, to have her move into a gated apartment complex on the riverfront.
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When she was invited to Montgomery, Alabama, 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, Keith chaired the group that planned funerals in three cities.
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.
The museum went on 15 years later to be the place where his family held the public visitation for his funeral services on Saturday.
Rising up over racism
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."
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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 his wife. On Saturday afternoons, they had a standing date to go to the movies.
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.
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Keith 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.
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 "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. 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.
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 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.'"
Cassandra Spratling and David Ashenfelter contributed to this report.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press:
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