Keith remembered as humble legend and hero

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — A hero. Teacher. Legend.

People from all walks of life across Detroit, Michigan and the United States on Sunday praised federal Judge Damon Keith, who died Sunday at age 96 and whose career was marked by landmark cases during his more than 50 years on the federal bench.

Jocelyn Benson, Michigan's secretary of state, came to Michigan to clerk for Keith, who later became her mentor. Benson served as dean of the Wayne State University Law School, which houses the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, who came to Michigan to clerk for Judge Damon Keith, called him a "legal titan."

"Our country has lost a legal titan who spent more than half a century as a crusader for civil rights," Benson said. "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.

"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."

Keith Johnson, former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, recalled meeting Keith around 2009 at a re-dedication ceremony for Damon Keith Elementary School on Canfield, a former Detroit Public School.

Keith Johnson, former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers.

Johnson and Keith stood on the school's playground, where Keith had some words of encouragement for Johnson, a DPS graduate and former DPS teacher.

"He reminded me of the importance of the work I was doing, providing kids the same opportunity provided to us,” Johnson said on Sunday. "And that we had a responsibility to establish a legacy of achievement and a legacy of success."

Johnson called Keith a contemporary hero, not just in terms of the civil rights movement but because of the class, dignity and humility with which he carried himself.

"He was in a very powerful position, but he was always very humble," Johnson said.

"I am grateful for the 96 years of life he had and the example he set. Not only for black people, but for all people. ... His contributions to me were colorless," Johnson said.

His impact was far-reaching. Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, based in Washington, D.C., and which works to improve the socioeconomic status and civic engagement of African Americans, according to ts website, said most people know Keith as a national leader and one "who also loved Detroit deeply and connected people across racial and economic lines." 

"I am a direct beneficiary of another legacy of Judge Keith — his commitment to the future in identifying and developing young talent. As clerks to Judge Keith, we were shaped by his devotion to both excellence and principle. We learned about navigating relationships, treating all people with respect, and exercising courage when faced with difficult decisions."

Bernice Smith of Detroit said she met Keith at Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church in the 1980s.

"Judge Keith is and will always be the most important person in Detroit," said Smith, 86, a Detroit activist. "He was a fair judge and he told the truth about what was going in the city of Detroit. People respected him and looked up to him."

Smith said Keith was friendly and approachable at church. She attended Keith's popular annual Soul Food Luncheon, in which he brought legal, civic and community leaders together to honor an African American leader for contributions to the community.

"He wanted to let the people of Detroit know how he felt about his life, and he wanted people to know what kind of person he was. He had that welcome attitude for people," Smith said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called Keith a civil rights icon.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

"In his decades of public service, he stood up for what was right, even if it meant facing attacks and threats from others," Whitmer said. "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 said: "Detroit lost a dear friend this morning with the passing of Judge Damon Keith, and America lost a national treasure."

Detroit businessman Sam Yono posted on FaceBook that Keith was his mentor in the late '70s and a weekly customer at his business, City Car Wash on Woodward and Adelaide, across from what is now Little Caesars Arena.

"He encouraged me to get involved in public service and give back to the community," Yono said on FaceBook. "A great teacher and a legend. Judge Keith, you will be greatly missed."

Detroit branch NAACP president the Rev. Wendell Anthony said the civil rights community lost a giant among those who have  fought justice and equity for all people.

Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony

"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," Anthony said.

Keith was a supporter and advocate for the city of Detroit and for African American political empowerment, Anthony said.

"Judge Keith represents an era of bold and courageous, judicial principles. These principles helped guide precedents for those  too cautious to be just and sometimes too afraid to stand alone," Anthony said.

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin from Michigan said Keith left "our community and our nation a better, fairer place ... ."

"My memories of Damon from 55 years ago remain vivid to this day, because his vision was so clear and compelling when he became co-chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission at its inception in 1964 and I became the commission's first general counsel, a statement from Levin said.

"The commission took on issues that were not yet established, like discriminatory practices in housing and by city officials.  As a lawyer, I was advising caution, but Damon was urging 'full speed ahead.' Invariably his instincts were right, because they were grounded in fundamental values. His opinions as a judge will stand the test of time, because he saw the law as an instrument of justice. Damon Keith's character provided  timeless reminders of how following a moral path in life can bring fulfillment and joy to those who strive for it and lasting benefit for the community of which one is a part."

Former Detroit city councilwoman Shelia Cockrel said she and her late husband, Ken Cockrel, have known Keith since the late 1960s. Cockrel said Keith remained a giant in the courts during the critical decades of the 1960s and 1970s.

"His leadership on issues around police brutality and police misconduct was incredibly important. He was the face of justice," said Cockrel, CEO of Citizen Detroit.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow said 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," Stabenow said.

Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans said "democracy stands on the shoulders" of towering figures like Keith.

Wayne County Executive Warren Evans

"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," Evans said. "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."

Richard A. Bierschbach, dean of Wayne State University Law School, said America lost a champion for civil rights.

"For more than 50 years, Judge Damon J. Keith has been an unwavering voice for those who have been unjustly silenced," Bierschbach said.

Keith was the first member of his family to earn a college degree; he went on to earn his master of laws from WSU's Law School 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," Bierschbach said.

"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," Bierschbach said.