Judge Damon J. Keith died April 28 at the age of 96. The Detroit native, one of the nation’s longest-serving federal judges, was a tireless champion of civil rights and civil liberties.
Born in 1922, Keith was the grandson of enslaved people who went on to become the sixth African American in U.S. history to serve on the federal court of appeals.
During his time on the bench, he made a series of landmark decisions that changed the social and legal landscape of the country.
His outstanding accomplishments were all the more remarkable in light of the obstacles of racial bigotry with which he was repeatedly confronted.
In a 2015 PBS interview with Tavis Smiley, Keith described the Detroit of his childhood.
“I never had a Black teacher. And the Fisher Y[MCA] was right across from Northwestern high school. Blacks could not go to that Fisher Y,” said Keith. “There wasn’t a Black police officer above the rank of sergeant. There were no Black judges. There were no Black elected officials.”
Traveling to college, Keith was forced to sit in the back of the train because of his race. He served in a segregated army in World War II. Even his professional success as a lawyer and then as a judge did not shield him from the sting of racism.
“There’s not a day in my life in some way large or small, I’m not reminded of the fact that I’m Black,” said Keith at age 92 in the same PBS interview.
Keith was appointed to a federal court in Michigan in 1967. That was only three years after the federal Civil Rights Act was signed. In short order, contentious cases landed in his courtroom.
Keith found deliberate systemic race discrimination at work in education in Pontiac schools, in housing in Hamtramck, and in hiring and promotion at Detroit Edison.
At times Keith was subjected to death threats, and he and his family were placed under the protection of the U.S. Marshals Service.
About five years after becoming a federal judge, Keith stood up to President Nixon in what became known as the Keith case. The case involved three leaders of the White Panther Party, an anti-war and anti-racism group with a far-left ideology.
Keith rejected the government’s claim that it had the authority to conduct electronic surveillance without a warrant on anyone it considered a national security threat. One year after the 9/11 attacks, Keith — who was by then on the federal court of appeals — said no to another U.S. president.
This time Keith said the Bush administration could not conduct deportation hearings in secret using a blanket national security justification.
At the age of 94, he issued a blistering dissent in a 2016 Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals voting rights case, in which the majority upheld new voting requirements in Ohio. In his dissenting opinion, Keith included the photographs of 36 civil rights martyrs, and he wrote:
“The utter brutality of white supremacy in its efforts to disenfranchise persons of color is the foundation for the tragedy that is the Majority’s effort to roll back the progress of history. I will not forget. I cannot forget — indeed America cannot forget — the pain, suffering, and sorrow of those who died for equal protection and for this precious right to vote.”
“Equal justice under law: That’s the way I’ve tried to be as a lawyer and as a judge — make those words meaningful,” said Keith in the 2015 PBS interview.