Star quality: Award winning TV anchor earns royal salute at 'Soul Food' event

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– Photos by John Meiu

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

For Judge Damon J. Keith, it was a time to break bread with some 400 of his dearest friends.

Earlier this month, on Valentine's Day at his 31st annual Soul Food Luncheon, the renowned U.S. Court of Appeals judge was in a celebratory mood, training the spotlight on another Detroit legend, Emmy Award-winning broadcast journalist Carmen Harlan.

Harlan, who spent the bulk of her career as a news anchor for WDIV-TV in Detroit before retiring in November 2016, was saluted at the luncheon as this year's recipient of the "Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award," a coveted honor that in years past has been presented to the likes of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, NBA Hall of Fame great Joe Dumars, and famed singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin.

"I am deeply humbled by this honor and to be in the company of such an illustrious group of past recipients," Harlan said following the event. "Judge Keith has been a longtime friend and hero of mine, and it is very gratifying to be honored by someone of his stature."

Keith, who last summer marked his 50th year on the federal bench and his 95th birthday, lauded Harlan for helping break the glass ceiling for "women and women of color" in the TV broadcast profession.

"She has been and will continue to be a role model for women in television news," said Keith of the honoree, who graduated from Mumford High School in Detroit before earning a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan.

Denise Page Hood, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, helped present the award to Harlan, whose familiar voice can be heard even in retirement by riders of the QLINE as she calls out stops along the 6.6-mile streetcar loop on Woodward Avenue.

"You set the tone for many of us," Hood told Harlan before presenting her with a specially inscribed crystal bowl that is emblematic of the award.

"We trusted you to deliver the news in a fair and impartial way, and you did so without fail," added Hood, noting that Harlan was on the "ground in Haiti" following the devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands in 2010.

A federal jurist since 1994, Hood was recognized two years ago with the Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award and said the honor is in especially good hands with Harlan, a longtime community activist who has "devoted much of her time" to such charitable causes as Operation Able, the Humane Society, the Children's Center, CATCH, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, and the Karmanos Cancer Institute.

Now an ambassador for the NBC affiliate in Detroit, Harlan spoke at award ceremony of the need to defend the tenets of the First Amendment.

"The free press is under siege right now," Harlan said. "We've got to prove ourselves and be better than we've ever been before."

Upholding the "high standards" of a free press is particularly important in the wake of a sea change in the presidency, according to Harlan.

"To have the kind of leadership that we have today that likes to call out the press and disrespect the press and minimize the contributions of journalists in our democracy is an assault not just on us," she said. "It is an assault on our government. It is an assault on our citizenry, and we can't tolerate that."

The luncheon, held during Black History Month, annually draws a host of federal, state, and local dignitaries to the United States Courthouse in Detroit. Blanche Cook, an assistant professor at Wayne State University Law School and a former law clerk for Keith, served as mistress of ceremonies, welcoming such speakers as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Eric Clay, and Chief Judge R. Guy Cole of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Duggan, who last fall won a second term in office as mayor of the Motor City, interrupted a "warm weather vacation" to attend the luncheon, which he first enjoyed more than three decades ago as a "junior city attorney" in Detroit.

"This luncheon is an absolute 'must' for me each year," said Duggan, who twice has been sworn in as mayor by Keith. "Our one constant each year is Judge Keith, always fighting for justice."

The jurist's colleague on the appellate bench, Judge Eric Clay, echoed the remarks, calling Keith a "man who has faced and overcome adversity" and has "strived to widen the circle of opportunity" for all over the course of his judicial career.

"You have served as a guiding light and inspiration," said Clay, a Yale Law School alum who clerked for Keith following graduation.

Cole traveled from Columbus, Ohio to attend the luncheon, enjoying the opportunity to "once again be in the presence of an icon in the race and civil rights arenas."

Keith, said Cole, has rightfully earned the distinction of a "living legend" in the law.

"I have always been struck by Judge Keith's high level of preparation and his commitment to the rule of law," Cole said, noting that a film documentary on Keith's life will be shown at the next meeting of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. "I firmly appreciate his genius as a jurist."

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