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Judge Damon J. Keith, civil rights and judicial icon, dies at 96

Free Press staff, wire reports | 5/3/2019, 6 a.m.
U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith, who decided many of the nation’s most important school desegregation, employment discrimination and ...
Judge Damon J. Keith and Ray Boone

He recalled Judge Marshall saying, “The white men wrote those four words. When you leave Howard, I want you to go out and practice law and see what you can do to enforce those four words.”

Judge Keith did just that. In 1970, he ordered citywide busing to desegregate public schools in Pontiac, Mich. Federal marshals had to protect his home after he received death threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

A year later, he made another groundbreaking decision, finding that Hamtramck, Mich., illegally destroyed black neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal with the federal government’s help. The remedy: He ordered the city of Hamtramck to build 200 low-income housing units. The court case is still alive decades later due to disputes over property taxes and the slow pace of construction.

In a 1973 ruling, he ordered Detroit Edison to pay $4 million to African-American employees who were victims of employment discrimination. He also ordered the utility company to create an affirmative action program and for the union to pay $250,000 for failing to protect the workers.

As an appellate judge in 1979, he upheld a lower court’s decision ordering the Detroit Police Department to integrate.

“He was a jurist without fear or favor,” Judge Roger L. Gregory, chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, told the Free Press on Tuesday. “He took on some of the landmark cases involving equal employment, police hiring in Detroit, school desegregation after Brown. The Pontiac school case was so controversial that he needed police protection. He was never afraid to speak truth — that we are all under the rule of law. He ruled with a sense of fairness.”

Judge Gregory noted that Judge Keith sat with the 4th Circuit in Richmond on a few occasions to hear cases.

Judge Keith, who would spend time around his July 4th birthday at his wife’s family farm in Mechanicsville, used the occasion in 2016 to celebrate Judge Gregory becoming chief judge of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

He served as “an inspiration to me,” Judge Gregory said, particularly when he was first appointed to the bench by President Bill Clinton in December 2000. Because he was a recess appointment, Judge Gregory said he was uncertain if he would remain on the bench because his term would only last until the end of the 2001 congressional session.

“Judge Keith encouraged me to go forward in strength and faith and courage and to keep justice and truth at the forefront and then everything would be OK,” Judge Gregory recalled.

And it was. Judge Gregory was re-nominated to the court in May 2001 by President George W. Bush and later confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“He always had a common touch and generous spirit,” Judge Gregory said. “He was an extraordinary American treasure. His legacy will live a long time.”

Dr. Lance D. Watson, senior pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, is scheduled to give the official eulogy at Judge Keith’s funeral Monday, May 13, at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit.