Damon J. Keith, the federal judge whose rulings in a string of high-profile cases over three decades catapulted him to the status of national civil rights icon, died April 28 at the age of 96 at his Detroit home.
Keith, the grandson of slaves rose from humble beginnings in Detroit to become an internationally-revered champion for justice and a much-loved father-figure who launched countless legal careers.
Lawyers and legal scholars from all over the nation were drawn to his Detroit chambers, a place adorned with photos of the many famous people whose lives he touched, including Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and President Barack Obama.
U.S. Six Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric L. Clay in a statement said Keith died at about 6:40 a.m. at home, surrounded by family. Keith was a senior judge on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Judge Keith was one of the most influential Federal jurists of the 20th and 21st centuries,” Clay said. “… his rulings in over 52 years on the bench had a profound impact on American life. His decisions ranged from prohibiting the Nixon Administration from warrantless wiretapping in national security cases, to the integration of the Detroit Police Department and the Pontiac Public Schools.”
Clay said funeral arrangements will be announced shortly.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she plans to order all U.S. and Michigan flags within the State Capitol Complex and on all state buildings to be lowered to half-staff on the day of Keith’s interment.
Keith’s oldest daughter, Cecile Keith Brown, offered the following statement on behalf of all three children including daughters, Debbie and Gilda Keith:
“He was a friend, mentor, loving father and counselor and a devoted husband. We are sincerely grateful for his 96 years of life and service. He will be missed.”
The longest-serving black judge in the nation, Keith was a leading citizen of Detroit — a confidant of elected officials, civic leaders and those who fight for social justice.
His impact on Detroit and his fight for equality under the law is visible from the Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University to his chambers in the federal building on Lafayette Boulevard to the Wright Museum of African American History, which Keith rescued from closure several years ago.
Whitmer in her statement said Keith “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,” the governor said. “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.”
Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who clerked for Keith, said the judge was her mentor.
“Our country has lost a legal titan who spent more than half a century as a crusader for civil rights,” Benson said. “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.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in a statement said the city “lost a dear friend this morning with the passing of Judge Damon Keith, and America lost a national treasure,”
“Judge Keith left as indelible a mark on this nation and our city as any jurist in history,” Duggan said. “During his more than 50 years on the federal bench, he handed down rulings that have safeguarded some of our most important and cherished civil liberties, stopping illegal government wiretaps and secret deportation hearings, as well as ending the racial segregation of Pontiac schools.”
Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood of the Eastern District of Michigan called Keith a legal giant and said his death is “a great loss to our nation and the Constitution.”
“He dedicated his legal life to protecting the rights guaranteed under our Constitution and decided some of the pressing issues of our time,” Page Hood said.
Keith Brown, who’s a physical therapist in suburban Chicago, said her father often peppered them with inspirational phrases as they were growing up on Detroit’s west side.
“Dad used to say things like, ‘Learn to listen and listen to learn. You can disagree without being disagreeable. And, “Show me a batter who hasn’t struck out and I’ll show who a batter who has never been to bat.’
“These are some the inspirational quotes he used to repeat that stuck me through the years and gave me inspiration as I faced challenges,” said Keith Brown.
The Rev. Charles Christian Adams, co-pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, where Keith was a longtime member, said the congregation had a moment of silence in his honor during Sunday’s service.
“As great as he was and as well-respected as he was he never lost the common touch,” Adams said. “When he worshiped at Hartford, if you didn’t know who he was you wouldn’t think he was anybody special. He was never ostentatious or braggadocios. He was just a person who loved God, a person who loved people and a person who tried to make his world a better place.”
Note from WI Editor D. Kevin McNeir: Judge Keith was a neighborhood favorite during my childhood in Detroit. His family and mine lived just a few blocks from one another and his youngest daughter, Gilda, and I were in the same classrooms at Louis Pasteur Elementary School. His accomplishments as a jurist are well-documented as are his many contributions to the city of Detroit. But I will always remember him being the kind of Black man that made little Black boys seek to emulate. Rest in Peace, Judge Keith.