DAMON KEITH WAS in the toilet. Psychologically, emotionally — and literally.
This proud young son of Detroit was a standout product of the Detroit Public Schools system at Northwestern High, a letterman in track; graduate of West Virginia State College, the first member of his family to earn a degree; U.S. Army veteran, serving overseas with dedication during wartime; alumnus of Howard University Law School, a stronghold of American civil rights instruction, where his professors included future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. If this résumé described a young person of today, he would be hailed as a shining ambassador of our city at its best.
But this was 1949. And Damon Keith was studying for the Michigan bar exam while mopping out bathrooms on the janitorial crew at The Detroit News.
Horrifically, his lot in life was not uncommon for the times. 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. Once he got out of the john, that is.
He hated his job, loathed the constant sound of flushing. The heavy, foul-smelling air made him gag. Countless times each day he would ask himself the same thing: What the hell am I doing here? He knew he was better educated, and probably more well-traveled, than most of the men in this hulking newspaper building. Yet he was a janitor, cleaning their spilled piss off the cold stone floors.
Once, during his lunch break, Keith was quizzing himself quietly with a copy of Ballentine’s Law Dictionary when his concentration was abruptly shattered.
“What are you reading?” a gruff, older newsman demanded to know.
“Just a law dictionary, sir,” Damon replied.
“A law dictionary?”
“I’m studying for the bar exam.”
“I’m going to be a lawyer.”
The reporter paused a moment in disbelief, then stared at Keith. “A black lawyer?” he finally said, laughing.
“You better keep mopping.”
THAT ANECDOTE OPENS the absorbing new Wayne State University Press-published biography Crusader for Justice, due Nov. 14, recounting 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. Detroit — indeed, the nation as a whole — can only give thanks that Keith did not heed that reporter’s advice and opt to set his mop aside.
How does the phrase go? “From the outhouse to the penthouse?” This is close. Keith went on to become founder and rainmaker of one of the first black law firms in Detroit: Keith, (Nathan) Conyers, (Herman) Anderson & (Myron) Wahls. As his reputation and stature in the community grew, Keith, alongside the late Dr. Arthur Johnson – who had come to Detroit in the ’50s to assume the helm of Detroit’s floundering NAACP branch – “grew that [NAACP chapter] into, in many ways, one of the most powerful and effective organizations in the United States,” says Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, a prominent local attorney in his own right and one of Keith’s myriad protégés.
“Take the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia NAACPs, we’re bigger than all of them combined,” Hollowell says. “We’re bigger than the national NAACP. The Freedom Fund [Dinner], all that was really [Keith’s] baby.”
When he ascended to the federal bench, first as a U.S. District Court judge in 1967, 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, and fueled by the ringing words of his Howard mentor Marshall, who reminded students that “the white man wrote ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ above the Supreme Court,” and it was up to them to ensure it.
Keith tackled racial discrimination and busing in Pontiac schools, housing inequities in Hamtramck, and hiring and promotion injustice at what was then Detroit Edison. In arguably his most famous ruling, United States v. Sinclair — also known as “the Keith Decision” — he stared down a sitting president in 1971 by ruling that Richard Nixon and his attorney general, John Mitchell, violated the Fourth Amendment by wiretapping conversations of the radical anti-war White Panther Party without obtaining a warrant.
The Nixon administration retaliated by filing a writ of mandamus against Keith, essentially suing a federal judge personally, but the Supreme Court upheld his ruling unanimously. John Sinclair, the former White Panther leader who is now an internationally acclaimed poet and musician, still refers to Keith as “a giant of jurisprudence. Judge Keith’s courage and determination to serve the U.S. Constitution continue to inspire me some 43 years later.”
More recently, Keith stood up to President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, ruling in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft that the Bush administration was breaking the law by conducting secret deportation hearings against 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.
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.
“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 [email protected].