Judge Damon J. Keith, a civil rights icon who became the sixth black person in U.S. history to serve on the federal court of appeals, died at his home in Detroit Sunday morning surrounded by family. He was 96.
Keith, a grandson of slaves who was born July 4, 1922, in Detroit, served as a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit since 1977. He graduated from West Virginia State College in 1943 before serving in a segregated army during World War II. He would go on to receive his J.D. from Howard Law School in 1949, pass the Michigan bar exam in 1950 and earn an L.L.M. from Wayne State University School of Law in 1956.
Throughout his upbringing and even in his legal career, Keith experienced the very racial discrimination and bigotry he sought to fight against.
In a 2015 interview with Tavis Smiley, Keith said of his Detroit upbringing: “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.”
In the same interview, he said, “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.”
In a statement to the Detroit Free Press, U.S. Six Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Eric L. Clay said: “Judge Keith was one of the most influential Federal jurists of the 20th and 21st centuries ... his rulings in over 52 years on the bench had a profound impact on American life. His decisions ranged from prohibiting the Nixon Administration from warrantless wiretapping in national security cases to the integration of the Detroit Police Department and the Pontiac Public Schools.’’
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told Freep that she plans to order all U.S. and Michigan flags within the State Capitol Complex and on all state buildings to be lowered to half-staff on the day of Keith’s interment.
In a statement, Whitmer said that Keith “stood up for what was right, even if it meant facing attacks and threats from others.”
“Because of his strength, his determination, and his commitment to ending racism in our country, Michigan is grateful and better for it,” she said. “We should honor Judge Keith’s legacy by working together to build a Michigan where everybody, no matter who they are or where they come from, can get ahead.”
The Rev. Charles Christian Adams—co-pastor of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church, where Keith was a longtime member—told Freep that the congregation had a moment of silence in his honor during Sunday’s service.
“As great as he was and as well-respected as he was he never lost the common touch,” Adams said. “When he worshiped at Hartford, if you didn’t know who he was you wouldn’t think he was anybody special. He was never ostentatious or braggadocious. He was just a person who loved God, a person who loved people and a person who tried to make his world a better place.”