Mourners remember Judge Damon Keith as giant in law, life

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — The parade of fellow judges in their black robes took five full minutes Monday at the funeral of Judge Damon J. Keith at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church.

Both of Michigan's senators were there — Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters — as were former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, former Govs. Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit Mayor Michael Duggan, and former mayors Dennis Archer and Dave Bing.

Edsel and Cynthia Ford sat near the front. Willie Horton, who quietly spent much of his Detroit Tigers career under Keith's wing, walked in with a cane. Former U.S. Rep. John Conyers watched his brother tell a story of having history in his grasp.

They and everyone else in the packed church along the Lodge knew the history of a jurist, human rights campaigner and civic leader who died April 28 at his home in Detroit at age 96, and who was to be interred at Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley.

Keith had been celebrated in his own time. He received dozens of honorary degrees, and his name is on the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at the Wayne State University Law School.

U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Damon Keith

Still active as a senior judge, he had served on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals since 1977, and he was regularly lauded for that.

"Damon Keith was a giant in law, in civil rights, and in life," said Wayne State President Roy Wilson, standing at the altar behind a black casket and two enormous sprays of red flowers.

But he was also the neighbor who strolled the track at the University of Detroit Mercy with Ann Brothers Smith, who would become associate superintendent of Detroit Public Schools. And he was the friendly face who called out to her lawyer son the first time he appeared in Keith's court:

"How's your mama?"

It was those little things, as well as the historic ones, that mourners remembered.

Duggan ran down the list of Keith's landmark rulings.

"My first year of law school, my constitutional law professor was talking about the Keith case," he said.

But others, including lawyer and former Ford executive Elliott Hall, talked about the judge's skill with a pair of tongs.

"He was an excellent outdoor barbecuer," Hall said. Keith held a cookout at his home on W. Outer Drive on Independence Day, "and it was a real feather in your cap if you were invited."

For all the stories written about the judge, who knew that?

As mourners filled the church and watched a simulcast in the Wayne State Community Arts Auditorium, flags flew at half staff at the State Capitol complex and on all state buildings.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks during the funeral of Judge Keith.

"Judge Damon Keith was a civil rights icon," Whitmer said in her proclamation. "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."

At the pulpit, she elaborated.

"For every life Judge Keith touched directly, thousands more of us have been the beneficiary" of his wisdom and courage, she said.

"He always stood for what was right," she said. Now, "it's up to us to mentor the next generation."

Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922, in a time when African Americans often had less to celebrate than their fellow citizens.

A grandson of slaves, he became a jurist known not only for his tenure but for rulings that made law and history.

Keith was the youngest of six children of Perry and Annie Keith. Perry had moved from Georgia in the 1920s to take a $5-an-hour job in a Ford foundry, the worst job in the factory.

When Keith graduated from West Virginia State College in 1943, his father told him, "One of my children has a college degree. Now I can die happy."

Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Grahnolm, left, gets a hug from former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin before the funeral for Judge Damon Keith. Granholm was a former law clerk for the federal judge.

What's now West Virginia State University, where a dormitory bears Keith's name, sent a delegation to the funeral. Keith lived the university's message, said president Anthony Jenkins.

"We teach our students to go out and work for social justice," Jenkins said. "You don't fight for the world as it is. You fight for the world as it should be. That's the lesson he taught."

Keith went on to earn law degrees from Howard University and Wayne State. Before that, however, he spent three years in the U.S. Army, driving a truck in the Quartermaster Corps in Europe.

In the segregated military of the day, his unit was all black — except for the officers, who were all white. He later called the experience "degrading," but while he said it helped shape him, he did not let it warp him.

During his Wayne State years, he worked as a janitor at The Detroit News. A reporter there saw him reading a law book one day and scoffed, "A black lawyer? Better keep mopping."

Instead, he kept plugging away, graduating in 1956 and going into private practice. By 1967, he was on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. By 1975, he was chief judge, and in '77 he was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to succeed Wade McCree on the federal court of appeals.

Former U.S. Representative John Conyers leaves the church after the funeral of Judge Damon Keith.

Amid nearly three hours of vibrant music and stirring oratory, one of Keith's former colleagues described how close Keith came to giving up on the judiciary before he started.

Attorney and future Ford dealer Nate Conyers said he had first come to Keith's firm seeking a break-in job — and was rebuffed by the partnership. Keith offered to pay Conyers' salary out of his own earnings.

"That was $35 a week," Conyers said to wide laughter, "and sometimes I even got it."

They were partners by 1967 when Sen. Phil Hart leaned on President Lyndon Johnson to nominate Keith for the district court. Grumbling that the background investigation and press scrutiny were intruding on his family life, according to Conyers, Keith picked up the phone and started to call Hart to back out.

"I grabbed Damon by the arms," said Conyers, and fellow partner Joe Brown hung up the phone.

They reminded him of the significance and importance of the role, Conyers said, "and Damon said, 'OK, I'll stay in.' And that was a moment in history."

Keith's judicial clerks across the years became one of his legacies. The list includes Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, Harvard law professor Lani Guinier and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay, who said that "many of us think of him as dad."

Some of Keith's decisions became legacy as well.

In 1971, he ruled that President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell had violated the Constitution by wiretapping White Panther radicals in Ann Arbor without a court order.

In 2002, the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that deportation hearings conducted in secrecy were unconstitutional. In a line still widely quoted and paraphrased, Keith wrote, "Democracies die behind closed doors."

Honored guest Barbara McQuade, the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said she teaches both cases in her national security law class at the University of Michigan Law School.

"The current generation of students," she said, "is continuing to learn from the vision of Damon Keith."

Cecile Keith Brown, Judge Keith's eldest daughter, speaks of her father during the funeral.

Keith had outlived by a dozen years his wife, Rachel, a physician and a groundbreaker in her own right. Most Saturdays in their 53 years together, he would buy her flowers at Eastern Market.

They are survived by daughters Cecile Keith Brown, Debbie Keith and Gilda Keith, and granddaughters Nia Keith Brown and Camara Keith Brown. 

Cecile Keith Brown, speaking for the family, thanked her father's caregivers and her sisters, and singled out her father's "fourth daughter," Granholm.

She told of her mother, perpetually waiting while her father made one more phone call, read one more article or wrote one more sentence.

She told of rules — in their household, the word "hate" was forbidden — and her father's maxims.

"Disagree without being disagreeable," was one.

Or he'd tell her, "Cecile, people don't have to be nice to you. Remember to say thank you."

At Hartford Memorial on  Monday, the thanks were rousing.

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