Bankole: Keith’s courage is his true legacy

Bankole Thompson
Retired U.S. Congressman John Conyers, left, shakes hands with Judge Damon Keith as the judge introduces VIPs at his 31st Annual Soul Food Luncheon in his offices on Feb. 14, 2018.

Of all the tributes pouring in since the April 28 death of federal Judge Damon Keith, few have focused on the courage of his leadership. He wasn’t afraid to wade into the most divisive issues and render some of the most consequential and controversial verdicts in the history of American jurisprudence. He faced threats to his life for some of his most powerful decisions over the years, yet he did not relent.  

His remarkably courageous decisions include: Forcing Pontiac Public School District to integrate, which drew the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan, slapping corporations like Detroit Edison (now DTE Energy) with a $4 million fine for racial discrimination in the workplace and ordering it to hire more blacks, urging an end to "negro removal," in Hamtramck, taking on Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush who tried to undermine the rule of law, and upholding affirmative action in the Detroit Police Department.

In each of the cases, Keith, a product of the history of racial inequality, knew he would make enemies in powerful places. But that did not stop him from wielding his power as a federal judge to address institutional racism. He mustered the courage, and in a truth-telling style understood how to buck the system and level the playing field for those who have been victimized, marginalized and excluded.

It’s fine to remember him as a nice and generous man who mentored so many successful people who have ended up with very lucrative careers. But that is not the sum total of Keith’s legacy. It is a disservice to his memory to focus mostly on the things that are the least controversial or the ones that make some of us comfortable. Any attempt to sanitize Keith’s legacy to simply fit our own view of what a freedom defender means only seeks to undermine the significance of his contributions to a just and fair world.

The fact is that some of Judge Keith’s rulings challenged the concept of white supremacy that was reflected in previous U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and that kind of action requires extraordinary courage and strength. He traveled a lonely and provocative road that few are willing to travel today because of the trappings of power and the desire for material success and to not upset the status quo.  

That is why his courtroom was a powerful platform for dissenters, poor people and those who are often cast aside as troublemakers. It should matter to us that in honoring him, we think deeply about his courage and vision to combat inequality and resolve to ensure that the Constitution protects all people, not just some.  

Perhaps his most enduring legacy is his influence on countless black lawyers, judges and other black professionals he mentored. To keep his legacy alive, they too have an obligation to do what Keith did until he departed at 96: Speak truth to power.

Keith left Detroit at a time when the city is facing so many economic challenges that require action from all of us.

He died at a time when the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed a lawsuit in federal court against 36th District Court’s cash bail system, which, the rights group says, punishes poor people. That it makes no sense to keep poor Detroiters in the Wayne County jail simply because they could not afford $200 to get out of jail for a ticket owed years back.

The ACLU lawsuit is in concert with Keith’s legacy. Other black elite law groups and civic organizations cannot be spectators to the kinds of issues Keith was profoundly known for, and which defined his legacy. They have a historic and moral obligation to publicly take a side on the plethora of issues Detroit is dealing with including the current racial turmoil in the police department.

I can’t think of any other black judges except Thurgood Marshall and A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.  who have had a more significant impact on the Constitution in the last half century than Damon Jerome Keith.  

“In your long career as a civic leader, lawyer and judge in your beloved Detroit, you have come to stand not only for the rule of law but for common sense in its application,” said former Yale University president A. Bartlett Giamatti in conferring an honorary doctor of laws degree to Keith in 1981.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews