In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court — led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in a majority decision in the landmark Dred Scott v. Sanford case — wrote that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect and that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, where profit could be made by it.”
Then came the Plessy v. Ferguson decision from the same court in 1896, that upheld state racial segregation laws for public facilities under the “separate but equal” doctrine.
In the Scott case, Taney argued that blacks were not included in the 1776 Declaration of Independence that affirmed all are created equal.
These rulings served as an impetus for the abolitionist movement, ushered in the evils of Jim Crow and set the stage for the epic racial battles for equality that followed, including the Civil Rights movement.
A century after these two landmark and morally reprehensible decisions were handed down by the highest court in the land, a black man named Damon J. Keith in 1967 took his seat as a member of the Detroit federal bench.
Some of his judicial rulings since then have sought to forcefully challenge the concept of white supremacy rooted in the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions.
Demonstrating tremendous power and discretion as a federal judge, Keith’s rulings admonished America that one race is not superior to the other.
Some of the cases he ruled on clearly capture the sweep of Keith’s life as a triumph for racial justice and equality, and a rejection of the legal theory rooted in racism that was espoused in both cases a century earlier.
For example, 16 months into his appointment, Keith was thrust into the national spotlight by presiding over the issue of “busing” in Pontiac, reminiscent of elements of segregation in the then-Jim Crow South.
The 1969 case, Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac, featured a group of black parents who sued the district for racial segregation and discrimination.
In a ruling that was upheld by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals — where he now sits as a senior judge — Keith ordered Pontiac to “integrate its school system at all levels.”
The transformational judge also had some strong words for the school board at the time, writing: “... when the power to act is available, failure to take the necessary steps so as to negate or alleviate a situation which is harmful is as wrong as is the taking of affirmative steps to advance that situation.”
He also showed moral fortitude in another case that had been brewing before the Pontiac case.
This one involved the city of Hamtramck where hundreds of black families were removed to make way for the creation of a parking lot for an assembly plant, which he described in his book, Crusader for Justice, as “negro removal,” a phraseology that explains the displacement of blacks in urban renewal projects.
In a 1971 ruling, Keith found the federal government complicit in the bias against black families in Hamtramck.
“For the Department of Housing and Urban Development to direct, fund and foster programs that have harmed and, if unchecked, will continue to harm the black citizens of Hamtramck, and to proceed with such activities by claiming innocence of what has been or is being done with federal funds cannot be tolerated,” Keith wrote.
The housing discrimination case still lingers decades after Keith’s verdict, because Hamtramck is struggling to find the resources to remedy the situation by building homes for those who were wronged.
Keith’s five decades on the bench could best be summed up in what the Rev. Martin Luther King, drawing from the 19th century abolitionist Theodore Parker, said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
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