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At Judge Damon J. Keith's funeral, an outpouring of love and mourning for a civil rights giant

Judge Damon J. Keith

By KRISTEN JORDAN SHAMUS AND GEORGEA KOVANIS | Detroit Free Press | Published: May 14, 2019

Judge Damon J. Keith was a force for justice and good in the world, said his daughter Cecile Keith Brown during his nearly three-hour-long funeral service Monday at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in northwest Detroit.

"There won’t be another Judge Damon Keith," she said of her father, the senior judge on the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, who died April 28. "But you all know the real way to honor Judge Keith, our dad, is in what you do every day. Do you play with your children? Do you encourage them? Do you listen to a student who needs a chance, advice or a job?

"Will you have the courage to speak up when it’s uncomfortable? Will you stand up for justice for all people — stand up against racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, all the phobias, all the isms?

"He believed in respecting each and every person, regardless of status or wealth. That’s what Dad did when he hired many of his law clerks, when he interacted with his colleagues. That’s what Dad was doing when he performed gay marriages. That’s what Dad did when he fought for housing, jobs and voting rights. That’s what he did for us as family members when we needed help or when he expressed his love for his grandchildren."

It was a sentiment echoed by nearly every speaker who stood at the podium for the funeral for Keith, who devoted his 96-year-long life to public service. The grandson of slaves, Keith was the longest-serving black federal judge.

On Monday, his polished black casket was positioned at the front of the church, with two massive arrangements of red roses flanking the podium behind it as friends, family, colleagues and admirers paid their respects.

More than 50 fellow judges, all wearing black robes, filled seven pews on one side of the church. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer; Wayne State University President Dr. M. Roy Wilson; former Michigan governors Jennifer Granholm and Rick Snyder; former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin; U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters; former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., and former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing were among those seated in the front rows.

“A world without Damon Jerome Keith was a world worse off," said the Rev. Ademuyiwa Bamiduro, a former clerk for Keith, who said he was devastated to learn of his passing.

Bamiduro noted that Keith will no longer be able to offer advice and guidance to new attorneys or provide opportunities for young black lawyers or offer fiery dissents to judicial rulings.

"No more speaking for the last, the lost and the left out," he said.

Yet Bamiduro was inspired by something Keith's father used to say: "A man’s harvest in life depends entirely upon what he sows.

"He has sown the seeds," Bamiduro said. "We are the harvest, and it is now up to us to march forward."

Rich legacy of service

It was in reading about many of Keith's landmark rulings when he was in law school that Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan said he first began to admire the judge.

"Like a lot of lawyers, my relationship with Judge Keith started long before Judge Keith had a relationship with me," Duggan said. "My first year of law school, my constitutional law professor initially was talking about the Keith case. It was a case that had originated in Ann Arbor.

"The Nixon administration had done warrant-less wiretaps on a suspected radical group out of Ann Arbor, and when they went to prosecute, refused to turn over those wiretaps because of national security. And the judge handling the case was under so much pressure, he disqualified himself. And the case went to the least senior judge on the entire bench."

That was Judge Keith.

"Judge Keith didn’t flinch," Duggan said. "He said people in power don’t get to decide when the constitution applies. He wrote, we are a government of laws. And then he ordered the Nixon administration to turn over those tapes, and that set off a national firestorm," Duggan said, noting that the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the decision.

"Judge Keith was right. … The constitution prevails, and that’s why we call it the Keith case. As a law student, I was so moved by the fact that this judge in Detroit did that, I started reading everything I could about Judge Keith and it was amazing."

Keith also ordered the City of Hamtramck to build low-income housing after it razed black neighborhoods to make way for the Chrysler Freeway. He ruled that Detroit Edison had to pay $4 million to black employees who faced discrimination on the job. And it was his ruling to desegregate the Pontiac public schools that led to busing students to ensure racial integration.

"He stood up to the Ku Klux Klan and became the first judge in the country to order busing," Duggan said. " … And he sent a message to every school district in America that if you act in this way, the courts will step in. … He changed the country with that ruling."

Keith's rulings in landmark cases were rooted in a desire to change the nation so others wouldn't have to experience the segregation and inequalities of his past.

Though he experienced racism, Keith didn't let it make him bitter. When he began practicing law in the 1950s, there were few black lawyers and no black judges.

He was committed to change that by climbing the ranks himself and by helping women and minority law clerks — African Americans, Hispanics, Asians. He hired more than any other federal judge. He encouraged them to do for other young people as he had done for them.

"He told us it’s important to give back to your community," Cecile Keith Brown said. "And as many of you have heard him say, he said, 'There’s not a day that I’m not reminded that I’m black in America.' "

Keith turned obstacles into life lessons

Born the youngest of seven children to Perry and Annie Louise (Williams) Keith, his father moved the family from Georgia in the 1920s to get a job in a Ford plant. Keith once said that "most kids in my neighborhood did not go to college — most went to Jackson prison."

After graduating from Northwestern High in 1939, Keith enrolled at West Virginia State College and worked his way through college by cleaning the chapel and waiting tables in a dining hall. He graduated in 1943 and was drafted into a segregated U.S. Army.

He recalled the three years he spent driving a truck in the Quartermaster Corps during World War II in Europe as "absolutely degrading," partly because the "all-colored" unit didn't have a single black officer.

Keith was discharged in 1946 as a sergeant. He made up his mind to become a lawyer after the war, when he saw German soldiers riding in the front seats of buses and dining in restaurants where he wasn't welcome.

He enrolled on the GI Bill at Howard University in Washington and helped research civil rights cases, participated in mock trials and watched rising legal stars like Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP's chief legal counsel, practice his legal arguments and argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard University Law School, from which Keith graduated in 1949, arrived an hour before the funeral service was set to begin on Monday. She said the university wanted to make sure Keith's family knew that he is held in high esteem at Howard.

“Civil rights trailblazer,” is how she described him. “He really wanted to see this country be the best it could be."

He went on to get a master of laws from Wayne State University Law School in 1956.

Former law clerks said he taught them by example, and rarely raised his voice or his gavel because he didn't need them to control his courtroom.

"Judge Keith ... mentored new generations of attorneys, elected officials and activists, many of whom are here today to honor his remarkable life and grieve his passing," Whitmer told the crowded church.

"He instilled in a young law clerk named Jocelyn Benson (now Michigan Secretary of State), the principle that Democracies die behind closed doors. But above all, he taught her the importance of living a life in service to others and always looking for where to achieve the greatest good for the largest number of people.

"He taught another law clerk fresh from Harvard, Jennifer Granholm, to remember that we all are working on floors we didn’t scrub and walking through doors we didn’t open. And to honor those warriors (we) never knew, who fought battles for us, by wielding our shield on behalf of those to come."

The service, which included two eulogies, a four-person string ensemble from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, as well as plenty of applause and clapping — especially to a rousing rendition of the hymn, "His Eye is on the Sparrow," also featured a history lesson from Nathan Conyers, who spoke about looking to Keith for help as a young lawyer in Detroit.

When Keith's law firm wasn't willing to take Conyers on its staff, Keith offered him another option.

"He said, 'Nathan, I am going to pay you out of my pocket to be my assistant.' And that was $35 a week," said Conyers, who is the brother of former U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr.

He lived by the mantra that to make the nation better, "we need to see who is coming up behind us, and we need to help them move forward."

Later, Keith and Conyers went on to start a new law firm — Keith, Conyers, Brown and Wahls, P.C. — which broke a color barrier downtown when it opened an office in the then-all white Guardian Building.

"We were breaking new ground," said Conyers, who later became a Detroit car dealer.

Wayne State University President Dr. M. Roy Wilson said Keith was special because he made everyone around him feel important, like they mattered.

"That’s what made Damon Keith stand out among so many great men. Because you see, the judge made me feel special. I suspect every single one of us in this room feels the exact same way. That, to me, was the wonder of this endearing man."

He recalled Keith telling him that Wayne State had to be good before it could be great. "To be good means to care, to have heart. ... Judge Keith was a good man. ... Maybe that’s how we best honor Judge Keith: Let’s be good people.”

A man of the people, bound to family

Gwendolyn Tucker, 72, of Detroit worked as an administrative assistant for Keith for 14 years, and said as she was entering the church Monday that she'll always remember him as "kind, gracious and always a gentleman."

She remembered countless times when an acquaintance or someone he knew from childhood or from his neighborhood would stop by his office with a problem.

“He would say, 'OK, Ms. Gwen, I will come out and see them.' And he would, and they would engage in a conversation. Whatever the problem was, he would either give them direction or solve it himself right there. What I realized was that he never turned anybody down. He was always fair and honest. He was considerate of everyone. He was always concerned about the little guy."

Bing said Judge Keith gave him a lot advice through the years — even before he became mayor.

“He was a father figure to me. He was a mentor and just a great guy. I have known him for 50 years. His legacy is one of leadership, one of mentoring, one of justice, and fighting for the right causes.”

Kathleen Straus, who served three, eight-year terms on the state Board of Education, said she first met Keith more than 60 years ago.

“We have known each other and worked on common causes over the years,” said Straus, who smiled when she said she is 95, “just one year younger than Damon.

“He has done so many things. He was a good human being for starters, and so many of his decisions were groundbreaking. They changed the country for the better.”

Keith committed his weekends to his family, said his eldest daughter, Cecile Keith Brown.

She spoke about how when she was growing up, her mother, the late Dr. Rachel Boone Keith — a trailblazer in her own right as one of the first black female women internists at Detroit Receiving Hospital — was on-call on Saturdays. So she and her sisters, Gilda and Debbie Keith, got to spend Saturdays with their father every week.

"He took us to dance class, music lessons, choir rehearsals, then we’d go out for a hamburger and some French fries," she said. "… He would take us to the movies, Tiger games, play ball with us in the backyard, barbecues. … He taught us to ride our bikes. And every Saturday, he would go to Eastern Market and buy flowers for Mom."

Her mother, she said, always waited for her father.

"Dad always had something more to do," she said. "One more person to call, one more person to talk to, one more article to read. Mom, being the patient Dr. Rachel Boone Keith, would often go sit in the car and wait for all of us, and eventually Dad, to come out."

After church on Sundays, she said her parents would greet people together for awhile.

"Then, Mom would go sit in the corner and wait patiently while Dad spoke to another person, and another person and another person," Brown said. "And those of you who know him know he made a special point of connecting with each and every person that he spoke with."

Her mother died 12 years ago, she said, after 53 years of marriage. And now, said, her mother's wait is over.

"Sunday morning, April 28, Dad finally walked through that door and joined his wife, Rachel. ... Now what do we do? As others have said, how do we continue his legacy? How do we honor him?"

By remembering his words and living them.

"He would repeat them again, and again and again so that we would use them to guide our lives," she said.

"When we were uncertain about our qualifications, he would say, 'Remember, you’re as good as anybody in there.' … "When we were fighting, … 'Disagree without being disagreeable.' When he felt that we weren’t listening well enough to him, he would say, 'Learn to listen, and listen to learn.'

"When he felt we weren’t being grateful enough, he would say, ... 'People don’t have to be nice to you. Remember to say thank you.' … He said frequently, 'Treat all people with respect.'

"When we were frustrated by a failure or something we didn’t do right or didn’t do as well as we wanted to, he would say, 'Show me a batter who hasn’t struck out, I’ll show you a batter who hasn’t been to bat.' "

Keith takes his final journey

A couple minutes after 2 p.m., a line of cars led by the white hearse carrying Keith's casket pulled into Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley.

There, on a grassy expanse, beneath a melancholy sky and a flag lowered to half-staff, more than 50 family members and friends, said their last goodbyes.

“We thank God for all of those who have come the last mile of this earthly sojourn of God’s servant, God’s child …” said the Rev. Charles C. Adams, co-pastor of Hartford Memorial.

“We are grateful today for the life and love and the eternal legacy of federal Judge Damon J. Keith, who has dedicated his life to love. We thank you for the love that he has opened his heart to, and shared with his family. … For his touch of love, he gave to everyone whose path he crossed. We thank you that he treated everybody with dignity and respect and demanded that we go and do likewise.”

Afterward, as the crowd dispersed, some lingered to stand at the casket, their eyes cast downward, others placed roses atop it.

In the distance, George Kent, a 53-year-old Detroiter and member of the cemetery grounds crew stood in coveralls, watching. When he was a child, his mother had worked in the federal building with Keith. “She always named him as someone who rose above," Kent said. “He was a positive influence for my mother to talk about to me and my brother.”

Keith was to be buried on the other side of the cemetery, in an area that was too muddy from rain to accommodate a number of people and cars. "I was praying that the sun came out," Kent said.

And as the hearse carried Keith across the cemetery to his family's plot, his final home, the sky did indeed lighten for a moment.

Cassandra Spratling and David Ashenfelter contributed to this report.

kshamus@freepress.com

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