By the Book: Life and times of legendary Judge Keith in spotlight



by Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman, the real estate magnate universally credited with pioneering the modern shopping mall, wanted to do “something special” for his longtime friend, Damon J. Keith, the distinguished federal jurist who has devoted a career to “fighting the good fight” for social and racial justice.
As Judge Keith would be the first to acknowledge, Taubman already has done plenty to cement their friendship, including a $3 million donation to support the creation of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University. Years earlier in 1994, Taubman also generously responded to an altogether different plea for help, this time teaming with Little Caesars founder Mike Ilitch to provide civil rights legend Rosa
Parks with a safe place to live after she had fallen victim to a robbery and beating inside her Detroit home.

But Nov. 15, at an invitation-only luncheon at the Detroit Athletic Club, Taubman hosted a further “celebration of friendship,” a gala event marking the publication of “Crusader for Justice,” a riveting 277-page biography of Keith that was written by Wayne State Law professor Peter Hammer and former Detroit Free Press columnist Trevor Coleman. 

The book, published by the Wayne State University Press, includes back cover testimonials from President William Clinton, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, entertainer Harry Belafonte, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University. For good measure, the foreword to the book was written by best-selling author Mitch Albom of “Tuesdays with Morrie” fame.

Yet, it was for Taubman – in his opening remarks to a VIP-laden audience of some 150 Keith friends and admirers that included Detroit mayors past, present and future – to offer the proper perspective.

“We are here to celebrate the amazing life and accomplishments of Judge Damon Keith,” Taubman said. “At times he has been known as a tough judge. Now, he is a judge who can really throw the book at you,” he quipped to a cascade of laughter.

The Keith biography has been years in the making, and traces his upbringing in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit during the dark days of the Depression to his rise to the federal bench, a legal perch where he has left a lasting imprint on the law, particularly as a staunch defender of equal rights.

Dr. Roy Wilson, recently installed president of Wayne State, praised the 91-year-old U.S. Court of Appeals judge as a “poet of the bench,” a man who has “given so much to our city and to our country,” including the timeless message, “in the quest to be great, we must be good.”

A federal judge since 1967, a year in which his beloved Detroit would be torn apart by riots that left 43 dead, Keith was honored by the presence of others at the luncheon, a guest list that included the likes of former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, current Mayor Dave Bing, and Mayor-elect Mike Duggan, along with U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, former U.S. Attorney Saul Green, and former Wayne State President Allan Gilmour.

They all undoubtedly will appreciate a passage in the book in which Judge Keith shares “one of my favorite verses of Martin Luther King,” the principal voice of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Judge Keith shared the message to members of the Black Congressional Caucus in January 2007 before administering the oath of office to the legislators.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency ask the question ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question ‘Is it popular?’ But conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one’s conscience tell you it’s right.”

Keith, who recently was saluted at his alma mater, West Virginia State University where a residency hall will be built in his honor, spoke those words with just as much conviction during an informal interview at his office in Detroit.
“I implored them, just as I have many others over the course of my career, to do what is right,” he said in his measured tone. “That has been a guiding force throughout my life, both in the law and in my everyday being. I trust that this message comes through loud and clear to everyone who reads this book.”