“I don’t scare easily,” Damon J. Keith declared once about threats to his life stemming from his ruling in the seminal 1970 Pontiac public schools integration case.
His decision that African American and white students should attend schools together prompted intense pushback from some — including the Ku Klux Klan.
Keith’s decades-long tenure as a jurist personified that statement. The legendary federal judge from Detroit — the grandson of slaves who was born on Independence Day in 1922 — died on Sunday at 96.
He 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.
Keith, the youngest of six children, was born in Detroit after his father moved from Georgia to work for Ford in the River Rouge foundry. He graduated from Northwestern High School in 1939 and earned a bachelor’s degree from West Virginia State College in 1943.
He served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946. After his war service, Keith attended Howard University School of Law, where he studied under NAACP attorney and future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. He received a juris doctorate for Howard in 1949 and earned a master’s degree from Wayne State University Law School in 1956.
The Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights sits on the university’s campus today.
Keith was married for 53 years to Dr. Rachel Boone. She died in 2007. He is survived by daughters Cecile Keith Brown, Debbie Keith and Gilda Keith and granddaughters Nia Keith Brown and Camara Keith Brown.
In 1964, Gov. George Romney tapped Keith to serve on the newly Michigan Civil Rights Commission. There, he served at co-chair with John Feikens.
The foundation of Keith’s legacy is rooted in the tenets of civil liberties and civil rights.
In 1973, Keith ordered Detroit Edison Company to pay $4 million in punitive damages to Black workers there. Keith ruled in Stamps v. Detroit Edison Co. that they have been victims of “deliberate” and “invidious” racial discrimination.
“The civil rights community has lost a giant among those who have consistently fought to hold fast to the reign of justice and equity for all people,” said the Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit Branch NAACP president. “This is particularly true in the cause of Black Freedom and social justice. Judge Damon Keith for a half century has led in this cause.”
Lavora Barnes, the first female African American chair of the Michigan Democratic Party said Keith was “more than a difference-maker — he was a force-multiplier.
“His work as a legal scholar and civil rights leader improved the lives of Black Americans and the world around him. His decisions corrected injustice and changed the course of our nation’s history, while the diverse set of individuals he influenced carry forth his ideas and values all around us.”
In the landmark 2002 case, Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, Keith upheld a lower court decision that prohibited the U.S. Justice Department from barring the public and press from deportation hearings involving those suspected of supporting terrorism.
The case occurred after the 9/11 terrorist attacks during the President George W. Bush administration. Attorney General John Ashcroft and Chief Immigration Judge Michael Creppy had directed immigration judges to close to the public and the press all immigration hearings that were thought to be of “special interest” to the 9/11 investigation.
The plaintiffs, the Detroit Free Press, the Detroit News, U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit,) and activist Rabih Haddad argued that it was a violation of the defendants’ First Amendment rights.
In his opinion, Keith wrote the immortal words: “Democracies die behind closed doors.” That’s become a rallying cry for civil liberties defenders across the nation. The Washington Post has adopted a version of the quote on its masthead.
The ACLU of Michigan noted the case in its statement on Keith’s passing, calling him a “brilliant and courageous jurist, who devoted his life to civil rights and the promise our constitution guarantees all people.
“…As a federal judge and civil rights leader, he has shaped the legal, social and political landscape of our time and for decades to come. He was a tireless fighter for all and a friend.”
Spencer Overton is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a former Keith law clerk.
“Judge Keith has likely hired more clerks of color than any federal judge in the history of the nation, and this diverse group has contributed significantly to the nation and to Michigan in government, business, academia and civil rights,” Overton said.
Others notable leaders who clerked for Keith include: Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier; U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay; former U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen for the District of Columbia; civil rights activist Constance Rice; and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.
Former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who also clerked for Keith, tweeted on Sunday that Keith was a “beloved mentor, father and friend.
“For those of us who worked for him, loved him, were tutored by him, it is an indescribable loss. Rest In Peace, Judge: though the fight for justice is not finished, those you taught so well will take it from here.”