Judge Damon Keith dies at 96, remembered as ‘crusader for civil rights’

Former Detroit Pistons' star Dave Bing (L) waits to be sworn in as the new Mayor of Detroit by Judge Damon Keith at the citys Department of Elections office May 11, 2009 in Detroit, Michigan. | Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Updated, 2:10 p.m. with comments from Gov. Whitmer and others:

Damon J. Keith, the legendary federal judge from Detroit, has died at age 96.

An announcement was made on Sunday at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church where he has attended services for the last several years. His passing also was confirmed by his family.

Lyndon Johnson

Keith was nominated to the federal bench by President Lyndon Johnson in October 1967. President Jimmy Carter later tapped him to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1977.

The judge’s legacy has been cemented by several historical rulings. In 1970, he ordered an student racial integration bus policy in Pontiac. In 1971, Keith ruled that the city of Hamtramck had illegally destroyed Black neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal.

That same year, he ruled that the President Richard Nixon administration could not engage in the warrantless wiretapping of three people suspected of conspiring to destroy government property. Keith’s opinion was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Keith was born in Detroit and he graduated from Northwestern High School in 1939. He earned a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State College in 1943.

He served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946 and later attended Howard University School of Law, where he received a juris doctorate in 1949. Keith also was awarded a master’s degree from Wayne State University Law School in 1956.

Damon J. Keith

In 1964, Gov. George Romney tapped Keith to serve on the newly Michigan Civil Rights Commission. He served as co-chair with John Feikens.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson said in a statement that she came to Michigan to clerk for Keith, “who became my mentor.

“Our country has lost a legal titan who spent more than half a century as a crusader for civil rights. 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,” she said.

“… I was proud to serve as dean at the law school that houses the [Wayne State University] Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. His quote, ‘Democracies die behind closed doors,’ is emblazoned above the center’s entrance at Wayne State University Law School and should serve as a reminder to all of us as we aspire to the legacy he has left our nation.”

Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm clerked for Keith on the Appeals Court.

Judge Damon J. Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit with Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and her husband, Ryan Friedrichs, on Jan. 1, 2019, the day Benson was sworn in as secretary of state. Keith participated in the ceremony by swearing in Benson. | John F. Martin

Mayor Mike Duggan remembered Keith on Twitter.

“Detroit lost a dear friend this morning with the passing of Judge Damon Keith, and America lost a national treasure,” the mayor wrote. “Judge Keith left as indelible a mark on this nation and our city.

“… America is a better place because it had Judge Keith to help safeguard our civil liberties. Our city is a better place because he spent every day of his life as a committed and involved Detroiter. We will miss him dearly.”

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) wrote on Twitter: “Heaven has gained another giant. This wonderful man was an inspiration and a friend to me. Your Honor, thank you for giving so much of your life to serve and uplift others.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer praised Keith for his “commitment to ending racism.”

“Judge Damon Keith was a civil rights icon. In his decades of public service, he stood up for what was right, even if it meant facing attacks and threats from others. Because of his strength, his determination, and his commitment to ending racism in our country, Michigan is grateful and better for it,” she said in a statement. “We should honor Judge Keith’s legacy by working together to build a Michigan where everybody, no matter who they are or where they come from, can get ahead.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Judge Damon Keith | Gov. Whitmer photo

Whitmer plans to order all U.S. and Michigan flags within the state Capitol and on all state buildings to be lowered to half-staff on the day of Keith’s internment.

Attorney General Dana Nessel called Keith an “inspiration.”

“The passing of Judge Damon Keith marks the end of an incredible life’s journey — not just for one man but for a nation that craved his leadership,” she said. “For more than half a century Judge Keith ruled from the bench with compassion, integrity and justice – an example for all of us. He was an inspiration by word and by deed to me and to every lawyer and political leader I know. …We should honor his memory and his legacy by living those words.”

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) called Keith an “extraordinary jurist and legal trailblazer.

“Judge Damon Keith devoted his life to public service and ensuring equal protection under the law. He will be best remembered for his decisions from the federal bench to protect civil rights and individual liberties,” he said.

Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School | Ken Coleman

Dr. Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights eulogized Keith, the first head of his department, as a “great civil rights icon.”

“Judge Damon Keith became a revered figure in civil rights and in jurisprudence,” he said. “Along with his co-chair Judge John Feikens, Judge Keith was the first to lead the newly-created Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1964. We will sorely miss his wisdom and guidance and remain grateful for his leadership, brilliant legal mind, and commitment to social justice.”

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman reports on Southeast Michigan, education, civil rights and voting rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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