In a reflective mood

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Judge Damon J. Keith (at right), who turned 90 last summer, was featured Monday during a special program presented by Detroit Public Television. The event took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, a community gem that Judge Keith helped save from bankruptcy in 2004. Above, following remarks about his life in the law, Judge Keith sat down with Stephen Henderson of The Detroit Free Press for a wide-ranging question-and-answer session.

Photos by John Meiu

Civil rights leader takes a look back — and ahead

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

It was billed as a “Community Conversation,” but in reality the February 25 program at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History offered admirers of Judge Damon J. Keith much more.

The federal jurist, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge since 1977, was in the Black History Month spotlight Monday evening, offering reflections on milestones in the civil rights movement and his hopes for restoring luster to Detroit in the years ahead. The program was presented by Detroit Public Television with sponsorship help from the DTE Energy Foundation, and was emceed by Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of The Detroit Free Press and host of “American Black Journal” on DPTV.

Keith, praised by Dan Alpert of DPTV as “one of the nation’s leading defenders of civil and constitutional rights” over the past 50 years, took the stage with a convergence of significant events on his mind, principally the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 and the observance of Rosa Parks’ 100th birthday earlier this month.

King and Parks were just two of the civil rights pioneers that Keith came to know and “profoundly touched my life,” the judge said during remarks that preceded a question-and-answer session with Henderson.

“I was there alongside Martin Luther King Jr. during the march down Woodward Avenue in 1963 and sat behind him as he gave his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that he would give again in Washington a few months later,” Keith recalled of the watershed moment in American history.

He later told of coming to the aid of Parks in her later years after she had suffered a beating by an intruder at her Detroit home, asking his friend, real estate magnate and philanthropist Alfred Taubman, for his help in providing a safer place to live for the civil rights legend.

“And through the grace of Al Taubman, we were able to do this, to move her to a safe place,” Keith said, gladly repaying a debt of gratitude from years ago while also celebrating the fact that a statue of Parks was scheduled to be unveiled at the U.S. Capitol this week.

While his admiration for the work of Parks and King would transcend time, Keith expressed deep appreciation for the legal leadership of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who was a longtime friend and mentor of the Detroit native.

“The cataracts came off my eyes when I first met Thurgood Marshall and other great black lawyers of the time,” Keith said. “I became motivated by these men, who were committed to the concepts of freedom and equal justice under law.”

Keith recounted a series of stories in which he encountered the evils of segregation, hurdles that he and others were forced to overcome as students, as military personnel, and as lawyers and members of the judiciary.

“There isn’t a day in my life that I am not reminded that I am black,” said Keith, moments after relating a story from his tenure as national chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.

In 1987, Keith had been appointed to the prestigious post by then Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the leadership role that he assumed involved chairing a series of national meetings, including one in the nation’s capital at one of its finest hotels. There, as he stood at the entrance to the hotel awaiting the arrival of a colleague, Keith was the unfortunate recipient of mistaken identity.

“A white driver pulled up, handed me the keys to his car and asked me to go park it,” Keith recalled, dryly making light of the “privileges” of being a federal judge. 

The story is symptomatic of societal ills that are still prevalent today, Keith said.

“Discrimination and prejudice are still deeply rooted in our daily lives,” he said. “We must raise the level of expectation when we see a black face.”

Much work, he acknowledged, remains to be done in that regard, particularly among those governing his beloved city of Detroit.

“We need to teach honesty and integrity,” he proclaimed, imploring those in the public trust to have the “courage to do the right thing,” words “taken to heart” by legal trailblazer Thurgood Marshall.
Former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Keith said “we will never have another Detroit like we once had,” but he is encouraged by continuing signs of investment in the downtown, hoping that it will lead to an economic resurgence that can be sustained.

The key, he said, will be to underscore the importance of education for Detroit’s youth, calling the classroom their “ticket” to a brighter future, one in which they “will be judged by the company you keep.”

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