Finley: Damon Keith spent lifetime fighting for justice

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
William Thurman, left, chairman of the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame, in Chicago, presents Judge Damon Keith with a charter member gold blazer.

The late Judge Damon Keith was descended from people for whom the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights were hollow words formed from lofty ideals that didn’t apply to them.

Yet if you walk into any federal courthouse, and countless other public and private offices throughout the country, the plaque on the wall commemorating the 200th anniversary of those documents bears the name of Detroit’s Judge Damon J. Keith, who served as chairman of the bicentennial.

Rather than rejecting the Constitution for its hypocrisy, Keith spent a lifetime wielding it as a weapon against racism, segregation and discrimination.

“I went to Howard Law School right after World War II,” Keith said in 2017, the year he celebrated his 50th year on the bench. “I was taught by Thurgood Marshall, Charlie Houston, Bill Hastie, George E.C. Hayes, those great constitutionalists. And Thurgood would ring out, ‘Those four words, equal justice under the law, were written by white men. When you leave this law school, I want you to carry them out.’ And I’ve tried to do that.”

And brilliantly, holding the Constitution up to the face of a nation too often intent on applying it selectively and demanding it “honor these words.”

Keith, a senior judge of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, was the author of a number of landmark cases, including a 1971 ruling that President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell did not have the legal authority to wiretap. The decision was critical to the Watergate case that eventually brought down the president.

He also upheld a 2002 lower court decision prohibiting the Justice Department from barring the public and press from deportation hearings, leading to his widely quoted declaration, “Democracy dies behind closed doors.”

In 2016, Keith wrote a stinging dissent in a voting rights case, calling the other two justices on the panel racist and presenting them with photographs of African Americans who died fighting for the right to vote.

“I said, ‘These are the pictures of some of the men and women who were denied the precious right to vote,’ ” Keith recalled, adding, “Had it not been for the federal judges — the federal judges in the South — our rights would have been denied. They looked at the Constitution and preserved it for all Americans.”

It was a moment that summed up both the passion and courage of Damon Keith.

Keith was dismayed at the disregard for constitutional principles in some quarters, particularly for the First Amendment, and recalled his own experience with such close-mindedness.

Several years ago he was helping plan a national gathering of black lawyers and judges. Some of the attendees objected to the choice of conservative black Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as keynote speaker. Thomas got wind of the protest, and threatened to pull out. Keith was called in to mediate.

“So I called Justice Thomas, and I said, ‘Justice, they tell me you have an invitation to speak to the black lawyers and judges in Memphis, and you’re thinking about not coming.’ I said, ‘Justice Thomas, do you believe in the First Amendment?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘So do I. We’re going to Memphis next week, even if it’s just you and me, and I’m going to introduce you.’ And he came.”

Keith reflected on his career, both as a civil rights lawyer and federal judge, and kept coming back to his father, who brought his family from Georgia to Detroit to accept Henry Ford’s offer of $5 a day to work in his auto plants.

As grateful as he was for the opportunity, the elder Keith wanted a better life for his son, and preached education as a way out.

In 2017, the son of a Ford factory worker marked 50 years on the bench with an event co-hosted by the auto pioneer’s great-grandson, Edsel Ford II.

“My dad wouldn’t know what to think,” Keith said then. “He would be so proud.”

For that, credit his own brilliance and determination, and a Constitution that Keith said, “made it all possible.”

An earlier version of this column first ran on Oct. 26, 2017.