Metro Detroit’s legal, civic and community leaders came out in large numbers to honor longtime federal Judge Damon Keith and retired news anchor Carmen Harlan at the judge’s 31st annual Soul Food Luncheon.
Keith, 95, who has been on the federal bench for 50 years, is a senior judge for the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. He brings together the area’s movers and shakers and others to celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans each February, the month Americans recognize as Black History Month.
Keith’s fellow judge Eric Clay joined others in honoring Keith for his legacy as a longtime federal judge who delivered landmark legal opinions in civil liberties and civil rights.
“We pay tribute to Judge Keith for the rule of law and the pursuit of justice,” said Clay. “Even beyond the longevity is the legacy.”
Keith said Harlan, a longtime news anchor for WDIV-TV (Ch. 4), was an important person to be honored with the award bearing his name.
“This is the year of the woman and no one expresses the woman like Carmen has,” said Keith. “She’s made these achievements in spite of great obstacles and I’m just so thrilled that our committee unanimously selected Carmen Harlan to be selected to be the recipient ... this year. We are honored to have her.”
Harlan said “the free press is under siege right now” and urged those attending the event to support and encourage journalists and those considering a career in journalism.
“It’s not just an assault on us. It’s an assault on our government. It’s an assault on our citizenry and we can’t tolerate that,” Harlan told a crowd of 200 guests, who stood and applauded her.
Harlan said she was “deeply moved” by the honor and one she would not forget, as she was given a crystal bowl by Chief Judge Denise Page Hood.
Keith also honored his former clerks, many of whom have gone on to become judges themselves or partners in elite law firms in Detroit and across the country.
Alex Parrish, a partner at Honigman law firm and a former clerk for Keith, said the luncheon is an important community gathering.
“It’s one of the few events in the year that brings everybody in Detroit together,” said Parrish. “All cross sections of the community, rich, poor, professional and working class, black, white suburban, city (residents). Judge Keith is one of the few people that can bring us all together.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who also spoke at the luncheon, said Keith “has meant so much to all of us.” The mayor’s father, Patrick Duggan, is a retired federal judge who served on the same bench as Keith.
Mike Duggan was sworn in as mayor for both of his terms by Keith.
Nate Conyers, a friend of Keith, said the luncheon highlights the judge’s legacy as a jurist and community lawyer.
“This has become historically a major event,” Conyers said. “This really is Damon Keith’s day.”
“This is an icon. What better way to honor him, said Norie Knight-McKinney, a professor at Wayne County Community College District. “I think it should be televised so our young people can see our icon. He made some landmark decisions.”