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Funeral set for U.S. Judge Damon J. Keith

By Giavonni Nickson

Funeral arrangements for celebrated U.S. District Judge Damon J. Keith will include a public visitation 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. May 11 at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. The services will be simulcast at Wayne State University’s Arts Auditorium. Funeral services will be at 10 a.m. May 13 at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, 18700 James Couzens Freeway in Detroit.

The nation was shaken by the sobering loss of Keith, a legal legend and civil rights advocate who was one of the nation’s longest-serving federal judges. Keith served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit from 1977 until his death on April 28. He was 96.

Keith decided some of the most landmark and controversial rulings of the last 50 years. He leveraged his legal authority by challenging the status quo and facing off against the Ku Klux Klan, corporate America, and former U.S President Richard Nixon. Many of Keith’s decisions changed the social and legal landscape of the country. Keith confronted racism and bigotry head-on with decisions that desegregated public schools, broke color lines at corporations, and required municipalities to repair the damage caused by systemic racism.

The grandson of slaves, Keith was born on July 4 in Detroit in 1922. He became the only African American among six current federal judges to have served more than 50 years in the federal courts, spanning the terms of 10 presidents.

His Motor City upbringing helped cultivate the foundation of his determinate work ethic and courage to live life upholding the ideals of freedom. He used his judicial bench seat as a powerful platform to apply the Constitution to circumstances of this century.

“One person can make a difference if you have the courage and the power to do what is right,” said Keith.

He credited his drive in large part to his father, who worked for $5 a day in a Ford Motor plant and implored his son to go to college. Following his father’s advice, Keith graduated from West Virginia State College in 1943 before being drafted into the U.S. Army during WWII. His experience serving his country in a segregated Army strengthened his conviction to the cause of civil rights. He returned home to a nation that had defeated hatred and intolerance abroad but had yet to bring full equality to fruition on its shores.

“I have a strong feeling that man will never discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore,” said Keith. “We have that obligation, to lose sight of the shore, because we still have a lot to do.”

His quest to infuse equality into the fabric of society became the backdrop for his legal legacy.

To prepare for civil rights work, Keith entered Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. It was there that Keith first heard Thurgood Marshall who would later become his mentor, practice Supreme Court arguments.

“Thurgood would say, ‘When you finish Howard Law, I want you to use the law as a means for social change,’” Judge Keith told the Washington Post in 2016. “That is what I’ve tried to do in my lifetime.”

In 1950 after completing his Law degree at Howard, Keith returned to Detroit and worked as a janitor while taking the Bar exam. Even as a well-educated Black attorney, Keith faced hostility.

At the start of his career as a law clerk at a prominent Black law firm, Keith noticed a shortage of Black attorneys in key government positions. In fact, before 1950 there were no Black judges in Michigan.

After earning a Master of Laws degree (LLM) from Wayne State University School of Law in 1956, Keith established his own law practice, which flourished even at a time when private practices were difficult for Black lawyers.

Keith gained national prominence while working tirelessly to distinguish himself and defend civil rights under the Constitution.

He was rewarded for his tireless efforts in 1967 when he was appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan only three months after race riots in Detroit nearly tore the city apart.

Giavonni Nickson

Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.

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