My Turn: July 4th holiday offered a special meaning in 2020

This year’s July 4th celebration – with a few inglorious exceptions – was muted by a virus that seems to have caught its second wind.

Our nation’s 244th birthday would have coincided with the 98th for a man who embodied the ideals spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. He, as it turned out, rose from humble beginnings in Detroit to become a “Crusader for Justice,” the title of a riveting biography written by Peter Hammer and Trevor Coleman.

“The story of Judge Damon J. Keith is more than simply that of a good man who happened to be born on the Fourth of July,” Hammer and Coleman wrote in the introduction of the book on the late federal jurist. “It’s the story of a convergence of time, space and opportunity, that allowed this grandson of slaves, and yet most American of men, to cross paths with some of the most dynamic and influential people of the 20th century. And use that experience to create a better life not just for himself, but for all of America.”

A sense of selflessness, which has been lost on today’s political leaders, was a Keith trait, ingrained in him by parents who raised their family through the hard times of the Great Depression.

The book – and later a film titled “Walk with Me: The Trials of Judge Damon J. Keith” – traces his legal journey from a Howard University law school grad in 1949 to an up-and-coming lawyer in Detroit, where eight years later he would join with Herman Anderson, Nathan Conyers, Myron Wahls, and Joseph Brown to form their own firm.

“They labeled me ‘The Rainmaker,’ since it was my principal role to bring in business and develop our client base,” Keith related.

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.

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, the echoes of which are being heard again today. It came during a time when Keith was dealing with a housing discrimination case in Hamtramck, a ruling also traced in poignant terms in the book and the documentary. The 1971 case would languish in the courts for decades, 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. 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.

For a man who devoted his life to civil rights crusades and to righting social injustice, Keith was among the “Legal Legends” saluted by The Detroit Legal News in 1995 upon its centennial celebration. In its profile of the honoree, Legal News reporter Eric Pope wrote, “The experiences of African-American lawyers and judges serve as a reminder of the great efforts that have been made – and still need to be made – in the pursuit of genuine equality in American society.”

Judge Keith, in turn, offered a personal reflection that carries special significance in light of today’s political climate.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I am not reminded that I am an African-American,” Keith said in 1995. “I will continue to work and devote my energies to a time when a person will not be judged by the color of their skin, their religion, or their gender, but by their intelligence, their character, and their devotion to helping people.”


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