U.S. Supreme Court to host viewing of the Damon Keith documentary, 'Walk With Me'

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

The life and legacy of a “justice fighter” will be celebrated July 20 at the Supreme Court of the United States with a special showing of the documentary, “Walk with Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith.”

The event coincides with the 50th year that Judge Keith has served on the federal bench and ranks as a “very humbling honor,” according to the jurist, who will celebrate his 95th birthday on July 4.

“It’s truly overwhelming,” Keith said of the special occasion. “To have such a showing at the Supreme Court, with all of its history and meaning to this country, is an honor that is hard to put into words.”

The documentary showing is part of the March on Washington Film Festival, a nonprofit program of The Raben Group, a national public affairs and communications firm committed to increasing awareness of the “events and heroes” of the Civil Rights era, according to a spokesman for the firm.

The 90-minute film, directed by Jesse Nesser, offers a riveting look at Keith’s life through a series of his landmark rulings, principally as a judge on the U.S. District Court bench in the Eastern District of Michigan. The film made its premiere in June 2015 at the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, attracting a sell-out crowd that included former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and best-selling author Mitch Albom, who served as executive producer of the film. Albom, who wrote the foreword to the Keith biography, “Crusader for Justice,” is Nesser’s uncle.

The 2015 showing was a “first” for the guest of honor, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court in 1967 by then President Lyndon B. Johnson, 10 years before he would accept an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

“I had not seen the film before that night,” Judge Keith acknowledged. “It was a first for me, and I have to admit that I was overcome by emotion during various parts of the film, particularly that about my wife (Rachel). She meant everything to me and her loss will forever sadden me.”

In the film, and during its showing, Keith was brought to tears when he recounted the death of his wife in early 2007, just days after she accompanied her husband to Lansing where he had sworn in Jennifer Granholm, one of his former law clerks, for her second term as governor. He was in Washington, D.C. at the time of her passing and had just sworn in members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“It was like a dagger in my heart when I heard the news that she had died,” Keith said. “The memories of that day, of that long plane ride back to Detroit, will stay with me forever, and certainly were stirred by that scene in the movie.”

The film was shot at various locations around his beloved Detroit, as well as in Washington, Cincinnati, and the family farm near Richmond, Va. It traces his legal journey from a Howard University law school grad in 1949 to an up-and-coming lawyer in his hometown of Detroit, where eight years later he would join with Herman Anderson, Nathan Conyers, Myron Wahls, and Joseph Brown to form their own firm.

Over the years, his work in court and in the community, most notably with the local chapter of the NAACP, elevated his legal profile to the degree where he earned an appointment to the federal bench in 1967, the same year that Detroit would erupt in flames during summer rioting that claimed the lives of 43.

As the film depicts, among his early judicial challenges as a federal judge was the Pontiac busing case in 1969, when a group of black parents sued the Pontiac school system, charging that it promoted racial segregation and discrimination. The case would grab national headlines over the next few years as Judge Keith ruled that Pontiac had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, ordering busing as a judicial remedy.

The outcry was long and loud, and was punctuated by the August 1971 bombing of 10 Pontiac school buses by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The decision by Keith, which was upheld on appeal, became a lightning rod in George Wallace’s 1972 presidential campaign. It came during a time when Keith was dealing with a housing discrimination case in Hamtramck, a ruling also traced in poignant terms during the film. The 1971 case still reverberates today, some 40 years after Keith ruled that the city of Hamtramck practiced “Negro removal” under the guise of urban renewal and ordered the city to build affordable new housing for displaced residents.

“It was a clear case of discrimination against blacks living in Hamtramck at the time,” Keith said, noting that it was tied to the construction of I-75 at the time. “It was systematic removal without any plans to ever relocate them to another section of the city.”

It would take until 2010 before the first semblance of housing remedies would take place, according to Keith. On September 10 of that year, a special ceremony was held in Hamtramck to mark the launch of a $50 million housing development on city owned lots, effectively bringing to an end the nation’s longest-standing housing discrimination court case.

The documentary also focuses on the Detroit Police affirmative action case and a 1971 class-action discrimination suit against Detroit Edison, which ironically lost in court decades ago but 44 years later helped sponsor the Keith film.

“Their (DTE Energy) involvement is somewhat fitting, considering what happened,” Keith reflected.

For a man who has devoted his life to civil rights crusades and to righting social injustice, Keith is among the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement, according to Will Searcy, program manager for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C.

“His decisions have desegregated public schools, broken color lines at corporations, and required municipalities to repair the damage caused by systemic racism,” Searcy said. “He spoke truth to power from the bench by prohibiting President Nixon and the federal government from engaging in warrantless wiretapping and the George W. Bush administration from conducting post-9/11 deportation hearings in secret.

“He is an undeniably important figure in our nation’s civil rights history.”


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