Judge Damon Keith Gets Booked
New biography chronicles the life of a judge and its powerful lessons.
Published: October 29, 2013
“Yes, it was, and because the action was brought by the Pontiac NAACP, I called all the lawyers into my chambers with my court reporter before the case began,” Keith says. “I told them, ‘I’ve been fairly active in my life with the NAACP. Do any of you think I should recuse myself because of my background?’ Both sides said, ‘No, Judge, we think you can be fair.’ And in the long run, I’m glad I did that, because once I reached my decision [to desegregate the schools] and it came out on the front pages of newspapers in Detroit and all over the country, people were asking, ‘Why didn’t the judge recuse himself?’”
“There was a plot to kill him by the grand dragon of the Michigan Ku Klux Klan [Robert E. “Pastor Bob” Miles]. They firebombed the school buses. The head of the local FBI went to see [Keith] and said, ‘You’ve got to soften the order, take it back. There’s a hit on you.’ He said, ‘No, full speed ahead. You do what you’ve got to do, but I’m going to do what I’ve got to do.’ He’s a very brave guy, and as a result Pontiac got integrated.”
Subsequently landing so many difficult, high-profile cases through the luck of blind draw that he asked the chief judge to investigate the fairness of the process (“I told him, ‘I think this blind draw has eyes,’” he says, smiling), Keith often worried about the safety of his wife and their three daughters, Cecile, Gilda and Debbie. The judge who initially drew the Sinclair case stepped aside because he was an Ann Arbor resident and feared for the well-being of himself and his family; Keith literally drew the short straw to replace him.
“I was treated with respect and given the full consideration of the law even though I was there as chairman of a radical political party, who was serving a nine-and-a-half- to 10-year sentence in state prison,” Sinclair remembers. “Our legal arguments were given the most careful consideration by Judge Keith.”
And did you know that the parents of Willie Horton, the legendary Detroit Tigers slugger, implored Keith to become their son’s legal guardian when he was a baseball wonder at Keith’s Northwestern High alma mater, to protect the wide-eyed teen from agents — and himself? From the book:
One time, Horton’s parents were concerned that Willie was driving without a license. Keith confronted the young athlete.
“Willie, your mother tells me you’ve been driving a car without a driver’s license.”
“No, Mr. Keith, I’ve got licenses. Here they are.”
He pulled out several drivers’ licenses, none of them his. Keith couldn’t believe it.
“Willie, you can’t just use anyone’s driver’s license! You have to get your own! You could go to jail for doing this!”
He made a call, put Willie in the car, and took him to get his license. It was one of countless episodes where Keith yanked Horton out of the fire. And one of countless reasons that Horton cherished the relationship in the fifty-plus years that followed.
Yet few of his victories, he says, came without a reminder. “I was appointed by Chief Justice [William] Rehnquist to be national chairman of the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution,” Keith relates. “Every federal judge in America was under my jurisdiction. We had our final meeting at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. My friend, Judge Francis Altimari of the Second Circuit, and I were coming out of the Williamsburg Inn when a white man drove up, threw his keys at me and said, ‘Boy, park my car.’
“Judge Altimari was very upset, but I said, ‘Frank, this is an experience I receive as a black man every day in some way, large or small. Then I went back and told all the federal judges why I was a little late.”
Recipient of the prestigious Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor, Keith has cut all ties with the Detroit chapter he once nourished. “It’s kind of a painful rift,” says Hollowell, who was appointed youngest-ever chairman of the Freedom Fund Dinner under Keith’s counsel. “I wish it could be healed, but I don’t think it will be.”
“I’m disappointed, I really am,” Keith says, the whisper of his voice rising in volume and pain. “We worked so hard for the integrity of the NAACP, but the present leadership never worked a day in it. More devastating to me is the fact the administration took down their Bill of Rights plaque because it had my name on it. They never mention Art Johnson, there’s no website that mentions our names, and you would think the [Freedom Fund] dinner was started because of them. It’s heartbreaking.” Calls placed to the Detroit NAACP office for comment went unreturned.
The plaque, and his portrait, both hang proudly in the Center for Civil Rights, conceived by Keith’s close friend, philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman, who contributed $3 million to the vision. The Center regularly hosts groups of area students to learn more about the civil rights movement and Judge Keith’s role in it. Many of them have their photos taken next to his painting.
“It does justice to him,” says director Hammer. “It has the feel of sacred space. It’s very consistent with this notion of civil rights education. While I think in terms of Detroit, I think it’s true nationally as well: kids need heroes. Real heroes. And he’s a superhero. They need those examples.”
That held true for Hollowell. Even though his physician father, Melvin, is a trailblazer in Detroit medicine, he set his career sights on the law largely due to Keith’s inspiration. “He’s opened so many doors for blacks in the legal profession,” he says. “I used to paint his house in the summer, put a red stain on his old place on Outer Drive.”
“Butch was very special,” Keith responds. “In fact, I have to see his father tomorrow. He’s my urologist. That’s not a pleasant place to go. I don’t look forward to seeing Dr. Hollowell when he reams me out.”
‘Detroit Legacies in Black and White,’ a charity book launch of Crusader for Justice to benefit the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, takes place at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11, at the Fox Theatre. Many Metro Detroit sports, entertainment and media celebrities are scheduled to attend. Tickets are $40 reserved, $25 for students; a special VIP meet-and-greet reception begins at 6 p.m. Call (800) 745-3000 or visit OlympiaEntertainment.com or TicketMaster.com for ticket information.
Jim McFarlin, a longtime contributor to the Metro Times, is a freelance journalist based outside of Chicago. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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