Justice Served: Detroit says farewell to Judge Damon J. Keith

Judge Damon J. Keith touched many lives during his 96 years on this earth, 42 which were spent as judge on the United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Those who were inspired by him packed the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church Monday morning to pay their finals respects to the federal judge and civil rights icon who passed April 28 at his river front home in Detroit.

Among the dignitaries included senators Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, former United States Senator Carl Levin, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, former Governors Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and former mayors Dennis Archer and Dave Bing.

Detroit Tigers legend Willie Horton, whom Keith looked after when his parents died in a 1965 car accident, was in attendance, as well as former United States Representative John Conyers Jr. and Wayne State University President Dr. M. Roy Wilson.

Keith requested that his casket be closed during his home going services. The shiny black coffin sat at the front of the sanctuary, while two enormous arrangement of red roses towered over it on either side. Throughout the 3-hour long service, family, friends, and clergymen shared their fondest memories of Keith and his legacy.

“With the passing of Damon Keith, the world lost an extraordinary man,” said Wilson, who was sworn in by Judge Keith when he became president of Wayne State in 2013. “Such men as him are in great demand, but in short supply. Damon Keith was a giant in law, in civil rights, and in life.”

Keith, a 1956 graduate of the Wayne State University Law School, has his name on the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at the school and a scholarship was established there in his name in 2008. His legal influence and commitment to equality for all in the American justice system helped change the course of the nation and birth the next generation of leaders. Keith’s law clerks have included Granholm, a number of judges and law professors, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Rashad Hussain, who served as deputy associate counsel to President Obama.

“A world without Damon Jerome Keith is a world worse off,” said Rev. Ademuyiwa Bamiduro, another former clerk for Keith. “He will no longer be able to offer words of wisdom or provide opportunities for young lawyers or offer fiery descents to judicial rulings. No more speaking for the last, the lost and the left out.”

Camilla Brantley, 53, of Detroit said she caught the Dexter bus and walked nearly a mile along the James Couzens Freeway just to pay her final respects to Judge Keith. She is not a lawyer or relative of Keith, but a lifelong Detroiter who has been inspired by his accomplishments on the bench.

“He was a true champion for civil rights,” said Brantley. “His commitment to school desegregation, fair housing, and voting rights for all will never be matched.”

Whitmer shared the same sentiments. She ordered all flags at the State Capitol and on all state buildings to fly at half -staff Monday in honor of Keith.

“Judge Damon Keith was a civil rights icon,” Whitmer said. “In his decades of public service, he stood up for what was right, even if it meant facing attacks and threats from others. Because of his strength,

his determination, and his commitment to ending racism in our country, Michigan is grateful and better for it.”

Keith was the youngest of seven children of Perry and Annie Louise (Williams) Keith, born July 4, 1922. His father had moved the family from Atlanta during the Great Migration, landing a job in a Ford plant in Detroit. He graduated from Detroit Northwestern High in 1939, and enrolled at West Virginia State College, working his way through college by cleaning the chapel and waiting tables in a dining hall. He received a bachelor’s degree in arts there.

He was drafted into the Army in 1943 and was discharged in 1946 as a sergeant. He returned to college at Howard University, earning his juris doctor in 1949. Keith worked as a janitor at the Detroit News while studying for his bar exam. Keith received a master’s in law in 1956 from Wayne State University and in 1964 opened his own law firm, which eventually became known as Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown &

Wahls. His partners included Nathan Conyers, Herman Anderson, Joe Brown, and Mike Wahls. The firm moved into the Guardian Building, becoming the first black law firm in the city’s all-white legal district.

Keith’s big break came in 1967, becoming a federal judge, taking a seat on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. He was confirmed by the United States Senate on October 12, 1967, and received his commission the same day. Keith was chief judge for Eastern Michigan from 1975 to 1977.

In 1977, Keith was nominated by President Jimmy Carter to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit vacated by Judge Wade H. McCree. He was confirmed by the Senate on October 20, 1977, and received his commission on October 21, 1977. Up until his death, Keith was still active as a senior judge.

Keith is survived by daughters Cecile Keith Brown, Debbie Keith, and Gilda Keith, and granddaughters Nia Keith Brown and Camara Keith Brown. His wife, Dr. Rachel Boone Keith, preceded him in death in 2007. Cecile spoke on behalf of the family at the funeral.

“We were not allowed to use the word hate at home,” she said. “Dad would say, ‘hate is too powerful and destructive. You can dislike someone, but you’d better have a good reason.’ So, to dad, with boundless gratitude, we thank God for each of your 96 years of life.”

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