Judge Keith made an ever-lasting mark on our lives

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

As any writer worth his weight would agree, it helps immensely to have a “good subject” when composing a story. Fortunately for me, the subject, when it was in the form of Judge Damon J. Keith, was on the highest of planes.

His life was the stuff of legend, lined by a series of landmark decisions and legal triumphs. Yet, all those who truly got to know Judge Keith viewed him in far greater terms, not only as a jurist of great legal intellect, but as a kind and compassionate man with a heart as good as gold.

It would be wise to take a moment to recognize and appreciate the true breadth of this man, someone who rose from humble roots in Detroit to become one of the pillars of the federal judiciary and the civil rights movement.
In February 2014, fittingly during Black History Month, Judge Keith rolled out the red carpet in his chambers for the new coach of the Detroit Lions, Jim Caldwell, the first African American to guide the NFL team. It was a lively meet-and-greet between Caldwell and the renowned U.S. Court of Appeals judge who for years had been a loyal season ticketholder for the Lions.

I was helping chronicle the meeting between Judge Keith and Caldwell, a defensive back for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the early ‘70s. They chatted for more than an hour and were joined by Judge Keith’s Court of Appeals colleague, Judge Eric L. Clay, a graduate of Yale Law School where he was a classmate of future President Bill Clinton. Others taking part were Greg Adams, Caldwell’s roommate at Iowa, and Alex Parrish, an attorney with Honigman in Detroit and a former law clerk for Judge Keith.

The informal discussion focused more on the law than on the gridiron, although Judge Keith shared a long-ago story about the Lions that illustrated how far the team had come in terms of its makeup. The story revolved around Keith’s courtship of his future wife, Rachel, who obtained her medical degree from Boston University in 1949.

During the early days of courtship, Keith invited Rachel to see the Lions take on the Los Angeles Dons. The pair had breakfast  at Kinsel’s Drug Store on Michigan Avenue, a 10-block walk from the then home of the Lions, Tiger Stadium. In an excerpt from his biography, “Crusader for Justice: The Life and Amazing Times of Federal Judge Damon J. Keith,” the rest of the story unfolds.

“It was Rachel’s first time watching the Lions play and every time the Lions would score a touchdown, she would cheer very loudly, thinking that by cheering for his hometown team, she was making points with Damon,” wrote Trevor Coleman and Peter Hammer, authors of the Keith bio. “However, the Detroit Lions, like the Tigers and Red Wings, were segregated and didn’t have any black players. The Los Angeles Dons had three or four.

“Bemused by her enthusiasm, Damon finally told Rachel he wasn’t a Lions’ fan. ‘I’m not pulling for the Detroit Lions because they don’t have any blacks on their team and until they get some blacks, I won’t pull for them,’ he said.

“Rachel, who was not very political at the time, took a long look at Damon and softly smiled. Gently placing her hands in her lap, she didn’t cheer for the Lions again for the rest of the game.”

Some six decades later, with Caldwell then at the coaching helm, the Lions had long since embraced the value and importance of diversity, and were led on the field by a man who sported a Super Bowl pedigree, once as a head coach and twice more as an assistant.

“It’s a real indication of how much progress we have made,” Keith told Caldwell during their chat in the winter of 2014. “No affirmative action took place in this case. You earned every right to be the coach of the Lions.”

Indeed he had.

Just as Judge Keith has forever etched his name in the pantheon of this country’s “movers and shakers,” the kind of man and jurist who stood up to injustice and the legal wrongs that are creeping back out of the shadows in today’s politically polarized society.

Perhaps the greatest irony of his life will come after his death. His passing, of course, will set the stage for a judicial successor, someone who will be chosen by a man who embodies the antithesis of all the good that Judge Keith personified. It figures to be a one-act judicial tragedy that will be played out for years to come.

With that in mind, may Judge Keith truly rest in peace.
 

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