Long before federal judge Damon Keith became known as a “crusader for justice,” he was a new Howard University School of Law graduate working as a janitor while he studied for the bar exam.
It was 1949, and Keith cleaned the bathrooms at the Detroit News, his hometown newspaper. One day, Keith recalled, he was leaning against a wall in the men’s room with a law dictionary in his hands when he was interrupted.
“What are you reading?” a white reporter asked him.
Keith, the grandson of slaves and a World War II veteran, told the reporter he was studying the law dictionary to prepare for the bar exam.
“What for?” the man asked.
“I’m going to be a lawyer,” Keith responded.
The reporter laughed.
“A black lawyer?” he asked incredulously. “You better keep on mopping.”
Keith, now 94 and still serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Detroit, recounted that story two weeks ago in a Howard University moot courtroom, where students, lawyers, his former clerks and a Supreme Court nominee gathered to watch a new documentary about his life, “Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith.”
The following day, the legendary judge sat in the front row as President Obama and black luminaries from across the country celebrated the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Keith, one of the oldest federal jurists in the country, has been handing down important rulings on racial discrimination, presidential power and other contentious legal issues for nearly 50 years. And he shows no signs of retiring. He’s at his chambers each day by 9 a.m., where the first thing he does is read his Bible, he said. He works until about 5:30 pm.
Last month, he issued a scathing 38-page dissent in an Ohio voting rights case, accusing two colleagues on the 6th Circuit Court of turning their backs on African American voters likely to be affected by restrictions on early and absentee voting. He included photos and biographies of 36 people who died during the long struggle for civil rights and equal protection, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Emmett Till.
“By denying the most vulnerable the right to vote,” he wrote, “the Majority shuts minorities out of our political process. Rather than honor the men and women whose murdered lives opened the doors of our democracy and secured our right to vote, the Majority has abandoned this court’s standard of review in order to conceal the votes of the most defenseless behind the dangerous veneers of factual findings lacking support and legal standards lacking precedent.”
He also warned, “The unfettered right to vote is the bedrock of a free and democratic society — without it, such a society cannot stand.”
He doesn’t apologize for calling them out by name.
“I thought the panel’s decision was racist,” he told The Washington Post. He noted that his grandparents couldn’t vote in Georgia. His fellow judges, he said, “don’t know what we’ve gone through. They don’t know what I’ve gone through.”
Keith learned the power of the law — and of dissent — when he was a student at Howard, where future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of his professors.
“Thurgood would say, ‘When you finish Howard Law, I want you to use the law as a means for social change,’ ” Keith recalled. “He used to tell us in class, ‘Equal justice under the law was written by white men.’ ” Marshall urged his students to make the country live up to its words.
“That is what I’ve tried to do in my lifetime,” said Keith, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1967 by President Lyndon B. Johnson and promoted to the appeals court by President Jimmy Carter about a decade later.
In 1970, Keith ordered citywide busing in Pontiac, Mich., to help integrate the city’s schools — a ruling that prompted death threats against him and intense resistance by some white parents. In August 1971, 10 school buses in Pontiac were firebombed by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
But Keith refused to back down. “I don’t scare easily,” he said.
A year after the busing decision, Keith issued a ruling in a housing discrimination case against the city of Hamtramck, ordering officials to rebuild houses of black people that it had demolished. (The city called the demolishment program “urban renewal,” one of the residents said in the documentary, adding, “We called it Negro removal.”)
Although Hamtramck appealed, the judge’s order eventually prevailed, and the houses were rebuilt.
One of Keith’s most famous rulings came in 1971, when he told President Richard Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell that the administration could not wiretap telephones of citizens without a warrant. That ruling, United States v. Sinclair, became known as “the Keith Decision.” In response, Nixon sued Keith personally.
“I had to hire my own lawyer,” Keith remembered. “President Nixon and Mitchell fought that all the way to the Supreme Court.” They lost.
Keith faced down another presidential administration in 2002. In the case of Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, the appeals court ruled that President George W. Bush could not conduct deportation hearings of terrorism suspects in secret.
“Democracies die behind closed doors,” Keith wrote in the court’s opinion.
Keith grew up in Detroit, where his father worked at the Ford Motor Co. for $5 a day. The pay was good, but the conditions were brutal. “No union. No sick days. No vacation days,” Keith said. “I used to see my father coming home with scars on his face from the heat.”
He said his father told him: “I never want you to work in a factory like I have to. I want you to get an education. We want you to make something of yourself and finish college.”
He did and married a woman, Rachel Boone, who was just as accomplished as he was. She was completing her medical residency at a Detroit hospital when they met, and she worked as a doctor while they raised three daughters. The couple were married for 53 years before her death in 2007.
The 90-minute documentary about Keith, directed by Jesse Nesser, chronicles his life and landmark rulings. Among those who watched the film at Howard: Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The moot courtroom where it was screened will be named in Keith’s honor, said one of his former clerks, Claude Bailey, who called the judge “a crusader for justice.”
Many of Keith’s clerks went on to prominent positions themselves, including Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier; Judge Eric L. Clay, who now serves on the 6th Circuit with Keith; former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm (D); and Rashad Hussain, who serves as Obama’s special envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Keith reminded his audience at Howard that racism and discrimination remain a stubborn part of the American landscape.
He recalled an incident that occurred in Williamsburg, Va., the site of an annual judicial conference. More than 350 federal judges had gathered at the College of William & Mary. It was the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Keith had been appointed by then-Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist as national chairman of the bicentennial celebration.
During a break in the conference, Keith walked outside.
“A white man drove up,” he remembered, “and said, ‘Boy, park my car.’ ”
Keith paused. More than 40 years had passed since a white reporter in a restroom laughed at Keith’s aspirations to be a lawyer.
Despite all of his accomplishments, the judge said, “this man saw a black face” and assumed he was a parking attendant. “Why could he not see my face and say, ‘This is a man who discovered the cure for cancer?’ It is an incident that takes place all the time. But you don’t become bitter. I always tell people, ‘One person can make a difference.’ ”
His life proves it.
About this series:
This is the last story in an occasional series on people connected to the figures or events or featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened Sept. 24.
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