Damon Keith is descended from people for whom the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights were hollow words formed from lofty ideals that didn’t apply to them.
Yet if you walk into any federal courthouse, and countless other public and private offices throughout the country, the plaque on the wall commemorating the 200th anniversary of those documents bears the name of Detroit’s Judge Damon J. Keith, who served as chairman of the bicentennial.
And while Judge Keith, who will mark his own milestone this weekend at a dinner celebrating his 50 years on the federal bench, still marvels at being chosen for such an honor, it was perfectly fitting.
Rather than rejecting the Constitution for its hypocrisy, Keith has spent a lifetime wielding it as a weapon against racism, segregation and discrimination.
“I went to Howard Law School right after World War II,” Keith says. “I was taught by Thurgood Marshall, Charlie Houston, Bill Hastie, George E.C. Hayes, those great constitutionalists. And Thurgood would ring out, ‘Those four words, equal justice under the law, were written by white men. When you leave this law school, I want you to carry them out.’ And I’ve tried to do that.”
And brilliantly, holding the Constitution up to the face of a nation too often intent on applying it selectively and demanding it “honor these words.”
Keith, a senior judge of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, is the author of a number of landmark cases, including a 1971 ruling that President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell did not have the legal authority to wiretap. The decision was critical to the Watergate case that eventually brought down the president.
He also upheld a 2002 lower court decision prohibiting the Justice Department from barring the public and press from deportation hearings, leading to his widely quoted declaration, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”
He has not slowed down in his defense of civil liberties. A year ago, Keith wrote a stinging dissent in a voting rights case, calling the other two justices on the panel racist and presenting them with photographs of African-Americans who died fighting for the right to vote.
“I said, ‘These are the pictures of some of the men and women who were denied the precious right to vote,’ ” Keith recalls, adding, “Had it not been for the federal judges — the federal judges in the South — our rights would have been denied. They looked at the Constitution and preserved it for all Americans.”
It was a moment that summed up both the passion and courage of Damon Keith.
Today, he is dismayed at the disregard for constitutional principles in some quarters, particularly for the First Amendment. Keith recalls his own experience with such close-mindedness.
A few years ago he was helping plan a national gathering of black lawyers and judges. Some of the attendees objected to the choice of conservative black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as keynote speaker. Thomas got wind of the protest, and threatened to pull out. Keith was called in to mediate.
“So I called Justice Thomas, and I said, ‘Justice, they tell me you have an invitation to speak to the black lawyers and judges in Memphis, and you’re thinking about not coming.’ I said, ‘Justice Thomas, do you believe in the First Amendment?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘So do I. We’re going to Memphis next week, even if it’s just you and me, and I’m going to introduce you.’ And he came.”
Keith reflects on his career, both as a civil rights lawyer and federal judge, and keeps coming back to his father, who brought his family from Georgia to Detroit to accept Henry Ford’s offer of $5 a day to work in his auto plants.
As grateful as he was for the opportunity, the elder Keith wanted a better life for his son, and preached education as a way out.
Saturday night, the event to honor the son of a Ford factory worker will be co-hosted by the auto pioneer’s great-grandson, Edsel Ford II.
“My dad wouldn’t know what to think,” Keith says. “He would be so proud.”
For that, credit his own brilliance and determination, and a Constitution that Keith says, “made it all possible.”
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