Craig Strong nabs 30th Soul Food Humanitarian Award

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Thursday is the 30th anniversary of Judge Damon J. Keith’s Soul Food Luncheon, the legendary celebration that annually brings together more movers and shakers than almost any other Detroit event.

This year’s recipient of the Soul Food Humanitarian Award is Judge Craig Strong of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan — a jurist Keith, who’s an appeals judge on the federal bench, has known since the younger man graduated from the Detroit College of Law in 1973.

And while the luncheon’s fried chicken, ham, black-eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread are key (and much anticipated by the throngs of guests), the real point, as Keith will tell you, is to honor a black Detroiter who’s made significant contributions to the community.

“Judge Strong is an outstanding judge,” Keith said, “and has worked tirelessly on behalf of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, as well as serving as president of both the Wolverine Bar Association and the Association of Black Judges of Michigan.”

Strong says he was shocked when he got the call from Keith.

“It’s a great honor,” he said, “because I’ve attended these luncheons throughout the years, and probably know all the people Judge Keith’s honored — people I deeply respect.”

Past honorees include civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, Coleman Young, Arthur Johnson and, just last year, Denise Page Hood, the chief federal judge for eastern Michigan.

At the circuit-court level, Strong — a retired commander from the U.S. Naval Reserves, and former judge advocate general — grapples with an endless parade of accused felons.

“Most of the defendants who come before me are young, high school dropouts without skills or visions of what they could become,” he said. “Their role models aren’t exactly the most positive. That’s one reason I think there’s so much recidivism.”

Strong said he particularly appreciates the fact that Keith presents the Humanitarian Award in a federal courtroom.

“When you think about black history,” Strong said, “it’s the courts that shaped the African-American experience and corrected past wrongs. And in that way,” he added, “they’ve shaped America.”

Strong readily calls Keith a hero and mentor, but the influence apparently isn’t limited to legal issues. It also extends to wardrobe.

“Over the years I have seen Judge Keith in some very colorful clothes,” said Strong, who’s famous for his dazzling outfits, which include an orange mink coat much appreciated at Tigers games. “He has definitely inspired me. I call him my fashion idol.”

For his part, Keith said, “Nobody can be a fashion inspiration to Judge Strong. Oh my gosh — he’s just amazing.”

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