Judge’s legacy explored in ‘Walk With Me’

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

A federal judge in Detroit for more than 45 years, Damon J. Keith was honored Wednesday night at the Max M. Fisher Music Center with the premiere of a documentary on his life, “Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith.”

The 92-year-old judge who sits on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, received a standing ovation as he walked on stage at Orchestra Hall, waving his walking cane at the audience of 2,000 that included Mayor Mike Duggan, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and other luminaries.

“You are our hero, you are an inspiration, and we are proud to call you ours in Detroit, though we share you with the world,” said Pamela Alexander, director of community development for Ford Motor Co.

The documentary followed his journey from growing up in segregated Detroit to his appointment by President Jimmy Carter to the bench. It included interviews from fellow judges, activists and the film’s executive producer, Free Press columnist and author Mitch Albom.

Once a janitor at The Detroit News, Keith went on to fight for social justice from the bench by ending discriminatory practices in Detroit’s housing, education and employment practices. He also issued a landmark ruling in the Watergate scandal of President Richard Nixon.

Many of Keith’s cases gained national attention, including one of his earlier ones, Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac. Keith’s ruling forced the schools to integrate, which angered many white families. Members of the Ku Klux Klan burned the buses that were to transport the black children to all-white schools and vice versa.

“That surprised me,” said Keith in the film. “That my decision inspired that kind of hatred.”

Discrimination does not surprise Keith. Through much of the film, the judge recalled times he was treated badly or not taken seriously.

Once while mopping the floor in a bathroom of The Detroit News building, he told a reporter that he was studying to be a lawyer. “He said ‘a black lawyer, keep on mopping boy,’” recalled Keith. “There’s not a day in my life somehow, large or small, that I’m not reminded that I’m black.”

Wednesday was the first time Keith saw “Walk With Me.”

“I had tears in my eyes,” said Keith, stating that some of the memories in the film, especially those about his late wife, got to him.

“I hope that I have been able to make a difference.”

After the film, Keith was interviewed by Albom and documentary director Jesse Nesser. Nesser said he was “in awe” of Keith’s personality.

Before the evening was over, Keith was surprised with a chorus of “Happy Birthday” as a cake was rolled onto the stage.

“Seeing as your birthday is the Fourth of July and it’s really just around the corner, and the odds of getting all these people to show up on the Fourth of July again are very slim, we decided we would do a little celebration with you,” said Albom.

Keith ended the discussion with a poignant message.

“There comes a point in all of our lives when we can’t do what is safe, or politic, or popular. We have to do what is right,” Keith said. “And I’ve tried to do what is right. God bless you.”