Judge Damon Keith Gets Booked
New biography chronicles the life of a judge and its powerful lessons.
Published: October 29, 2013
Even Keith’s law clerks have risen to positions of national prominence: their ranks include Lani Guinier, Bill Clinton’s nominee for assistant attorney general for civil rights and the first woman of color appointed to a tenured professorship at Harvard Law School; Rashad Hussain, President Obama’s special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; Judge Eric L. Clay, who now serves alongside Keith on the Court of Appeals; and Michigan’s first female governor, Jennifer Granholm, a latter-day cable TV host.
“Judge Keith was my brass ring,” reflects Granholm, who clerked for Keith in the mid-’80s. “The long shot, the hope I would be able to work for him, was a big dream of mine, and when it happened I was overjoyed.
“He’s such an icon in the civil rights community, and a role model for the city with the most difficulties in the country,” the Canadian-born Granholm says. “He’s set this example of civility and decency and, of course, intelligence, yet never bending when it comes to the things that are most important. Yes, he’s had the great cases and he’s a national figure, but at this moment when Detroit is bruised and the state of Michigan has been bruised, his example at home, I think, is that much more powerful.”
Little wonder, then, that Crusader for Justice took nearly five years from concept to completion. “It’s a real occasion to celebrate his life,” says Peter J. Hammer, professor of law at Wayne State and director of the two-year-old Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, who shares a co-author credit with the respected Detroit-based journalist Trevor Coleman. “Our focus this year, in addition to our programming here, is the rollout of the book.
“When I started [with the center], I had three check-off items,” Hammer says. “One was to form the center, which was a bureaucratic, political process to get through. Another was to build the center, and we’ve done that. And the third was the biography. To show you the importance of that, in my mind, [the biography’s] just as important as the center in preserving this history and making it as available as we can to people.”
HAD IT BEEN LEFT up to Keith to compose his own memoirs, Crusader for Justice likely would not exist. “It’s not an autobiography, it’s a biography,” he explains. “I didn’t write it.” He is 91 now, and while he understands that “as you get older” more friends and admirers want you to preserve your history, this wasn’t a project he was inclined to jump into in his mid-80s.
As it was, “it involved a lot of my time, a lot of interviews,” he recalls. “My former law clerks, Alex Parrish, Judge Clay and Spencer Overton, thought about having somebody write a book about me. They went to then-president [Irvin] Reid at Wayne State and suggested it, but needed some seed money. President Reid worked it out, and that’s how it started. Then everything else started falling into place. It’s difficult to recite your life history, but I am absolutely pleased.”
We are seated at the conference table of Keith’s spacious chambers in the Theodore Levin U.S. Courthouse, downtown. “I don’t hear as many cases as I used to, as a senior judge now, but I hear a substantial number of cases,” he says. “I go to Cincinnati, my law clerks go with me, just like always. God has been good to me, to allow me to function not only physically, but I hope emotionally and mentally.”
His annual VIP-studded Black History Soul Food Luncheon, held here each February for the past 26 years, is the stuff of legend. At his right hand is the book Wisdom from the Proverbs, from which he reads daily, although the Bible next to it is turned to Deuteronomy this day. Every available inch of the walls, it seems, is adorned with a photo, plaque or other form of career recognition. He and the love of his life, the late, vivacious Dr. Rachel Boone Keith, shared a joy of entertaining, so many of the photographs are candid, informal shots.
There are several pictures of Justice Marshall, who transitioned from Keith’s hero to his dear friend, until Marshall’s death in 1993, and whom he persuaded to come to Detroit to deliver the keynote address at the first Freedom Fund Dinner in 1956.
“He was a wonderful fellow,” Keith says wistfully. “He was our type of guy.” There’s a shot of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., with whom Keith marched and prayed. The more you browse, the more you begin to believe that every major black entertainer and political figure of the 20th century — and a significant number of white folks as well — is represented in at least one image. It is a museum of African-American history and Keith is not just the curator — he’s the star exhibit.
The chambers are a vest-pocket version of the public Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History that Keith resolved to save years ago.
“He kind of single-handedly kept [its] doors open,” says Hollowell, a family friend since childhood. “He summoned all of the black business leadership in the city into his chambers and he put a number on it. He said, ‘OK, this is what they need to stay open. Let’s put a plan of action together. We all have a stake in this. We’re not going to let the museum close.’ Everybody was in, everybody made it happen. Nobody else could have done that.”
BECAUSE OF THE TURBULENT era of Keith’s times, Crusader for Justice is a biography that reads like a contemporaneous account of the American civil rights movement.
Among the many fascinating subplots in the book — the lessons he learned courting Rachel, his reactions to two Detroit race riots, the political maneuverings necessary to gain the federal bench over slam-dunk appointee Otis Smith — it’s noteworthy that Keith’s first major case, the Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac desegregation issue, fell to him less than a year-and-a-half into his judgeship. It was trial by fire for a relative rookie.
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