Judge Damon Keith Gets Booked
New biography chronicles the life of a judge and its powerful lessons.
Published: October 29, 2013
DAMON KEITH WAS in the toilet. Psychologically, emotionally — and literally.
This proud young son of Detroit was a standout product of the Detroit Public Schools system at Northwestern High, a letterman in track; graduate of West Virginia State College, the first member of his family to earn a degree; U.S. Army veteran, serving overseas with dedication during wartime; alumnus of Howard University Law School, a stronghold of American civil rights instruction, where his professors included future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. If this résumé described a young person of today, he would be hailed as a shining ambassador of our city at its best.
But this was 1949. And Damon Keith was studying for the Michigan bar exam while mopping out bathrooms on the janitorial crew at The Detroit News.
Horrifically, his lot in life was not uncommon for the times. To be an African-American lawyer in Detroit in the ’40s — or attempting to become one, for that matter — was to know the meaning of struggle and humiliation. Most attorneys worked second jobs, many taking night shifts at the main post office, so they could descend on the old Recorder’s Court in the morning like strays at the butcher’s back door, hoping the presiding judge might toss them a scrap of a case with a defendant who didn’t have legal representation. White people didn’t hire black lawyers. Black people didn’t hire black lawyers, fearing they might be less competent or couldn’t get them a fair hearing before a Caucasian judge. And in those days, judges in Detroit were all Caucasian.
Nevertheless, this was the career path Keith was determined to pursue. Once he got out of the john, that is.
He hated his job, loathed the constant sound of flushing. The heavy, foul-smelling air made him gag. Countless times each day he would ask himself the same thing: What the hell am I doing here? He knew he was better educated, and probably more well-traveled, than most of the men in this hulking newspaper building. Yet he was a janitor, cleaning their spilled piss off the cold stone floors.
Once, during his lunch break, Keith was quizzing himself quietly with a copy of Ballentine’s Law Dictionary when his concentration was abruptly shattered.
“What are you reading?” a gruff, older newsman demanded to know.
“Just a law dictionary, sir,” Damon replied.
“A law dictionary?”
“I’m studying for the bar exam.”
“I’m going to be a lawyer.”
The reporter paused a moment in disbelief, then stared at Keith. “A black lawyer?” he finally said, laughing.
“You better keep mopping.”
THAT ANECDOTE OPENS the absorbing new Wayne State University Press-published biography Crusader for Justice, due Nov. 14, recounting the extraordinary life and times of Hon. Damon J. Keith, senior judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit since 1977. Detroit — indeed, the nation as a whole — can only give thanks that Keith did not heed that reporter’s advice and opt to set his mop aside.
How does the phrase go? “From the outhouse to the penthouse?” This is close. Keith went on to become founder and rainmaker of one of the first black law firms in Detroit: Keith, (Nathan) Conyers, (Herman) Anderson & (Myron) Wahls. As his reputation and stature in the community grew, Keith, alongside the late Dr. Arthur Johnson – who had come to Detroit in the ’50s to assume the helm of Detroit’s floundering NAACP branch – “grew that [NAACP chapter] into, in many ways, one of the most powerful and effective organizations in the United States,” says Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, a prominent local attorney in his own right and one of Keith’s myriad protégés.
“Take the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia NAACPs, we’re bigger than all of them combined,” Hollowell says. “We’re bigger than the national NAACP. The Freedom Fund [Dinner], all that was really [Keith’s] baby.”
When he ascended to the federal bench, first as a U.S. District Court judge in 1967, Keith’s all-consuming passion for civil rights became the driving force behind landmark decisions that altered the course and character of our nation. It undoubtedly was inspired by his personal experiences in Detroit and serving in America’s segregated Army, and fueled by the ringing words of his Howard mentor Marshall, who reminded students that “the white man wrote ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ above the Supreme Court,” and it was up to them to ensure it.
Keith tackled racial discrimination and busing in Pontiac schools, housing inequities in Hamtramck, and hiring and promotion injustice at what was then Detroit Edison. In arguably his most famous ruling, United States v. Sinclair — also known as “the Keith Decision” — he stared down a sitting president in 1971 by ruling that Richard Nixon and his attorney general, John Mitchell, violated the Fourth Amendment by wiretapping conversations of the radical anti-war White Panther Party without obtaining a warrant.
The Nixon administration retaliated by filing a writ of mandamus against Keith, essentially suing a federal judge personally, but the Supreme Court upheld his ruling unanimously. John Sinclair, the former White Panther leader who is now an internationally acclaimed poet and musician, still refers to Keith as “a giant of jurisprudence. Judge Keith’s courage and determination to serve the U.S. Constitution continue to inspire me some 43 years later.”
More recently, Keith stood up to President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, ruling in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft that the Bush administration was breaking the law by conducting secret deportation hearings against alleged terrorists. In the process, he wrote the memorable line, “Democracies die behind closed doors,” words that now adorn the breathtaking new Center for Civil Rights that bears his name inside the Wayne State University Law School.
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