Leaders pay respects to late Judge Damon Keith

The Detroit News
Federal Judge Damon Keith of Detroit died Sunday morning. He was 96.

Federal Judge Damon Keith of Detroit died Sunday morning at 96. Dignitaries from around Michigan weighed in to offer their respects. Some of the statements run full-length, others have been excerpted.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer: “Judge Damon Keith was a civil rights icon. In his decades of public service, he stood up for what was right, even if it meant facing attacks and threats from others. Because of his strength, his determination, and his commitment to ending racism in our country, Michigan is grateful and better for it. We should honor Judge Keith’s legacy by working together to build a Michigan where everybody, no matter who they are or where they come from, can get ahead.”

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan: "Detroit lost a dear friend this morning with the passing of Judge Damon Keith, and America lost a national treasure.

"Judge Keith left as indelible a mark on this nation and our city as any jurist in history. During his more than 50 years on the federal bench, he handed down rulings that have safeguarded some of our most important and cherished civil liberties, stopping illegal government wiretaps and secret deportation hearings, as well as ending the racial segregation of Pontiac schools. Here in Detroit, he opened the doors for countless young law clerks, many of who have gone on to become judges themselves.

"I have so many fond memories of Judge Keith. I was humbled and honored the two times he administered the oath of office when I was sworn in as Mayor. I will always treasure the Thanksgiving Day I spent with him in 2016, driving him in the parade as he served as Grand Marshal.

"America is a better place because it had Judge Keith to help safeguard our civil liberties. Our city is a better place because he spent every day of his life as a committed and involved Detroiter. We will miss him dearly."

Former Gov. James Blanchard: “He was such a kind man. Such a positive force in Michigan and the country. He’s a Michigan legend and an American legend. He was always trying to encourage civic engagement. He was always involved.”

Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson: "It’s a sad day. Judge Damon Jerome Keith passed away earlier today, and we are all mourning the loss of this outstanding civil rights pioneer, federal judge and great friend of Wayne State. I had the honor of being sworn in as the 12th president of Wayne State University by Judge Keith, but it meant even more to me to have met the man. At my swearing in ceremony Judge Keith said, “For Wayne State to be great, it has to be good.” I have used those apt words as my guiding light in the leadership of Wayne State.

"A quick litany of his accomplishments wouldn’t adequately tell the story of this great man, who served 10 U.S. presidents and led from the bench efforts to racially desegregate schools, at a time when there was overwhelming opposition to such a move. His bravery and compassion marked every decision he made in his position as a federal judge, and we are all grateful for the momentous change he affected in the national social conscience.

"Judge Keith received his master of laws from Wayne State in 1956 and remained committed to his alma mater throughout the rest of his life. We opened the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights on our campus in 2011 to promote the educational, economic and political power of underrepresented communities in urban settings. Judge Keith was deeply committed to civil rights for all people, and the Center upholds his values in everything it does.

"Greatness is not randomly conferred on people. It comes from a place in the heart and the soul that defies easy explanation. Damon J. Keith was a great man. The Wayne State community mourns his passing and pledges to honor his legacy through our work in the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, and by striving to prepare the next generation of leaders to carry his work forward."

Detroit Branch NAACP President Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony: "The civil rights community has lost a giant among those who have consistently fought to hold fast to the rein of justice and equity for all people. This is particularly true in the cause of Black Freedom and social justice.  Judge Damon Keith for a half century has led in this cause. An icon in the civil rights community, he has rendered uncompromising decisions from punishing illegal government wiretapping, and the racial motivation of building a wall of segregation around the City of Pontiac.

"He would certainly be a thorn in the judicial side of this current administration and its treacherous policies of family separation and deportation. He was an early opponent in the judicial process to expose secret deportations and government abuse of its authority. Judge Keith will long be remembered for his work off the bench with the NAACP. He was an early organizer and supporter of the largest sit-down Dinner in the nation, the Annual Fight For Freedom Fund Dinner of the Detroit Branch.

"He was a great supporter an advocate for the City of Detroit and for African American political empowerment. Judge Keith represents an era of bold, an courageous, judicial principles.  These principles helped guide precedents for those  too cautious to be just and sometimes too afraid to stand alone!" 

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel: "I only hope that we, as a nation, work feverishly to ensure that Judge Keith’s legacy and body of work does not die with him. If our federal courts do not protect us from tyranny and the undermining of basic rights and liberties, who will?" 

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell: “We have lost a protector of the people and I just lost another good friend. Judge Keith was an example of the best of Michigan. John and Damon worked closely together for many years in fighting for equality for all. We are losing many giants who stood against enormous odds, lived in historical times and opened doors wider for all of us. Their spirit, courage and wisdom needs to live on.”

Chief U.S. District Judge Denise Page Hood of the Eastern District of Michigan: “It is a great loss to our nation and the Constitution to lose a legal giant like Judge Keith. He dedicated his legal life to protecting the rights guaranteed under our Constitution and decided some of the pressing issues of our time.

“He was a dedicated husband to his late wife and a loving father and grandfather. During an outstanding and demanding legal career, he found time to mentor law clerks and judges. Those of us who knew him appreciate the time he gave us.” 

Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans: "Democracy stands on the shoulders of leaders like Judge Damon Keith. Few have played such an important role in protecting civil liberties and forcing our country to live up to its foundational ideals of equality and justice for all. As we mourn, we also celebrate the life of an icon who left this world far better than he found it. He did so much for so many, it’s hard to adequately put into words."

"On a personal level, Judge Damon Keith was more than a mentor, he was a motivator who challenged us to be the best version of ourselves. He was always there when called upon to help prepare the next generation of civil rights leaders and public servants. We looked to him for guidance and wisdom and always walked away inspired to reach higher. When I was first elected to public office, Judge Keith swore me in, which I consider the honor of a lifetime."

Judge Eric L. Clay, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit: “Judge Keith was one of the most influential Federal jurists of the 20th and 21st centuries. The grandson of slaves, his rulings in over 52 years on the bench had a profound impact on American life. His decisions ranged from prohibiting the Nixon Administration from warrantless wiretapping in national security cases, to the integration of the Detroit Police Department and the Pontiac Public Schools. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the US District Court in 1967, where he later served as the Court’s first African American Chief Judge. In 1977 he was elevated to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the nation’s second-highest Court, by President Jimmy Carter. He was a family man possessed of uncommon humility, a leading patron of the arts, a mentor who opened doors to scores of aspiring lawyers and judges, and a proud son of Detroit."

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters: “Detroit, our state and country have lost an extraordinary jurist and legal trailblazer. Judge Damon Keith devoted his life to public service and ensuring equal protection under the law. He will be best remembered for his decisions from the federal bench to protect civil rights and individual liberties."

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee: “I am saddened to learn of the passing of Judge Keith. Damon Keith was a remarkable man and respected judge. As one of the nation’s longest serving judges, Judge Keith played a role in court decisions that helped to expand civil rights and protect civil liberties for all Americans. Because of Judge Keith’s work on the federal bench, our state and the country have been changed for the better.

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO, NAACP: "We mourn civil rights icon Judge Damon Keith. Guardian of justice since 1967. Landmark rulings in school desegregation, fair housing & voting rights. Still judging at age 96 His commitment will never be matched. Nation forever in his debt."

Richard A. Bierschbach, dean of Wayne State University Law School: "We’ve lost one of the greatest civil rights champions of our time. For more than 50 years, Judge Damon J. Keith has been an unwavering voice for those who have been unjustly silenced. As dean of Wayne State University Law School, proud home to the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, I know that his legacy will live on in the eyes and hearts of our Damon J. Keith Scholars and every student who learns the law in the center that bears his name.

"Judge Keith was the first member of his family to earn a college degree and went on to earn his master of laws from Wayne Law in 1956. For some of our students, he is the reason they came to law school, and specifically to our law school. Because of Judge Keith, those students are out in the world changing it for the better.

"Words feel inadequate to describe the life of a man who changed the fabric of a nation and how much he meant to the Wayne Law community — he was an extraordinary person and a compass for courage and justice, but that does not even begin to capture the full measure of his character or the impact he had and will continue to have on all of us.  

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow: "Judge Damon Keith was a crusader for justice. His life’s work made a lasting impact on civil rights and civil liberties in America. There will never be another Damon Keith."

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson: "Our country has lost a legal titan who spent more than half a century as a crusader for civil rights. His decisions from the bench prevented the federal government from infringing on individual liberties and helped to battle systemic racism in corporations, municipalities and schools. I first came to Michigan to clerk for Judge Keith, who became my mentor. I was proud to serve as dean at the law school that houses the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. His quote, 'Democracies die behind closed doors,' is emblazoned above the center’s entrance at Wayne State University Law School and should serve as a reminder to all of us as we aspire to the legacy he has left our nation."

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield: “Heaven has gained another giant. This wonderful man was an inspiration and a friend to me. Your Honor, thank you for giving so much of your life to serve and uplift others.”

Barb McQuade, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan: “I am grateful to have known Judge Damon Keith, a crusader for justice who served the public as a model of dignity. In his honor, let’s renew our commitment to respect for others, even when we disagree.”

U.S. Attorney Matthew Schneider: "Judge Keith’s impact on our legal system will not be forgotten. He dedicated his life to public service, beginning with the U.S. Army during World War II. He was an incredibly civil and courteous man, and everyone will miss his constant smiles in the courthouse hallways."

Longtime Detroit politico Sam Riddle: "You were always on the legal battlefield to make #America live up to her promises, R.I.P."

Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy K. Baruah: “The terms ‘legend’ and ‘trailblazer’ are sometimes overused, but not when applied to Judge Damon Keith. Judge Keith’s story, that began as the grandchild of slaves, to achieving the pinnacle of American jurisprudence, inspired scores of Americans and his legacy will continue to inspire.”

Judge Greg Mathis:  "Judge Keith was one of the most effective Jurists of our time His work and belief in guaranteeing equal protection under the  law brought forth a country  that is better off now because of the work he's done in the past."