Living Legend: Damon Keith Recounts His Life As A 'Crusader for Justice'

Damon Keith of Detroit, a federal judge since 1967, knows all about struggle and humiliation.

He worked as a Detroit News janitor while studying for the Michigan bar exam in 1949 after graduating from Howard University School of Law School, Keith recounts in a biography coming in two weeks from Wayne State University Press.  

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Judge Damon Keith's biography will be published Nov. 14 by Wayne State University Press. 

The 368-page book, "Crusader for Justice," opens with an anecdote from those bathroom-mopping days, when "a gruff, older newsman" derided Keith's goal of becoming a lawyer, as Jim McFarlin describes in a Metro Times cover story.

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.

McFarlin, who calls the book "absorbing," writes that it recounts "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."

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.


Jim McFarlin writes the cover story in this week's Metro Times. (Illustration by Lee Devito)

Among the landmark decisions he wrote, McFarlin notes, is a 2002 ruling in a case called Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft. The appeals court ruled 3-0  that the Bush administration couldn't hold secret deportation hearings for 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.

McFarlin, a former Detroit News writer and longtime journalist, speaks with Keith about the book at the federal courthouse downtown. At 91, the appeals court judge still is hearing cases..

“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 . . . just like always."

The biography by WSU Law Professor Peter J. Hammer and Detroit journalist Trevor W. Coleman "reads like a contemporaneous account of the American civil rights movement.," according to McFarlin. 

-- Alan Stamm

Read more:  Metro Times
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