A personal look at the life of U.S. Judge Damon J. Keith of Detroit
The United States Senate adopted a resolution Friday honoring the life and work of U.S. Sixth Circuit Court Judge Damon Jerome Keith.
Keith was an influential figure and champion for civil rights and justice. He died April 28 at the age of 96.
Elliot Hall was a close friend of Keith's for about 60 years. Hall spoke with Local 4 about his relationship and life with Keith.
"We were a working class neighborhood," Hall said, "Damon's dad worked at Ford and my dad worked at Ford."
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, all someone needed for a decent job at one of the Big Three was a high school education. Hall said Keith wanted more than that. Encouraged and inspired by the pastor at their church, Keith wanted to do better.
"He was shaping our lives," Hall said of the pastor. "He was making us understand that we could do a lot better in terms of our approach to our future."
Keith went to West Virginia State College, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1943, before serving in the U.S. Army until 1946. He then attended Harvard University School of Law, where he was surrounded by the likes of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall -- men who were the architects of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and other landmark cases that established the unconstitutionality of racial segregation.
"It was pounded in him that you have to make a difference," Hall said. "When you graduate from Harvard Law School, wherever you go in the country, your talk is to free or contribute to the freedom of black folks."
After graduating with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1949, Keith returned to Detroit to practice law, where he couldn't rent an office because of the color of his skin.
"All the black folks that were practicing. 90 percent were in the Tobin Builiding." Hall said. "It was the only building on the edge of Downtown Detroit that would permit black lawyers to rent and have an office."
The challenges Keith faced only drove him to work harder to make a difference. He became active in the community, doing work for the NAACP and the Urban League. This work raised his popularity and he became known as not just a good lawyer, but also a man of the people. Eventually, he was appointed to a seat as a federal district judge.
"And then he gets on the court and does things on the bench that were inconceivable," Hall said. "I've practiced before many judges in my 54 years as a lawyer. Judges need to have good temperament, respect of the litigants that appear before them and a good understanding of the law. Damon had a unique ability -- whether you won or lost before him -- you felt that you had a fair chance."
Keith's tenure as a judge showed how courageous he was on the bench, ruling in many notable cases. Hall said Keith was not afraid to hold the establishment accountable. In 1971, Keith ruled in United States v. Sinclair that U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell had to disclose the transcripts of illegal wiretaps that Mitchell had authorized. The Nixon administration appealed, ultimately going to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in United States v. United States District Court that the prior ruling be upheld.
"He could have gone right along with the president of the United States," Hall said. "A little federal judge in Detroit. It could have been easy for him to just go along. He didn't do that. He was brave, and the Supreme Court supported him."
Keith died from complication from leukemia and cardiovascular disease. A public visitation will be held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. Saturday.
His funeral will be held at the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church on Monday at 10 a.m.
On Monday, ClickOnDetroit will provide live coverage of Keith's funeral with special programming, “Remembering Judge Damon Keith,” that will be streamed online and on-air. The special coverage begins at 10 a.m.
"In his decades of public service, he stood up for what was right, even if it meant facing attacks and threats from others," said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. "Because of his strength, his determination and his commitment to ending racism in our country, Michigan is grateful and better for it."
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