Independence Day Birthday
As a former law clerk said, there’s something poetic about the fact that Judge Keith was born on the 4th of July. Judge Keith celebrates his birthday every year on the farm of his late wife Rachel’s family, outside of Richmond, VA. This farm has been a special place to Keith since the first time he visited, for his wedding to Rachel in 1953.
The farmhouse never would have been found without the help of Judge Keith carefully guiding us down a small unpaved road with acres of corn towering over either side. In an opening in the middle of the corn lies Judge Keith’s second home, a far cry from his high rise apartment in Detroit. For this, Judge Keith’s 92nd birthday, the lawn around the house was outfitted with picnic tables, grills, and a swingset for the multitude of children running around. BBQ was shipped in on dry ice from Montgomery Inn, a restaurant in Cincinnati, especially for the event, as Judge Keith swears that they have the best ribs.
The production crew captured the magic of the event as family and friends, including many former law clerks, gathered to enjoy the beautiful summer day. The special day included hay rides, two cakes, and special song and dance performances by family members of all ages.
Second Trip to Washington, D.C.
July 1st - 7th
When a law clerk starts work in Judge Keith’s chambers, he or she becomes part of Keith family of law clerks. Not surprisingly, many of the Judge’s former law clerks have made the transition from Detroit to D.C., and this film would not be complete without their stories. During this second trip to D.C., the team interviewed former law clerks Praveen Madhiraju, Carlos Recio, and Judge David Simmons. The team also conducted interviews with yet more lawyers from past cases including Robert Gallagher (Stamps v. Detroit Edison Co., 1973) and John Ferren (Garrett v. Hamtramck, 1973).
Also while in D.C., the production team captured one of Judge Keith’s speeches at Georgetown University for the students in the Charles Hamilton Houston Law program. The crew also brought Judge Keith back to Howard University, where he received his law degree in 1949 as well as to the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building, a place special to Judge Keith. The building not only bears the name of his close friend, Thurgood Marshall, it is also where the Bicentennial Committee decided that the name of its chairman, Judge Damon J. Keith, should appear on over 300 plaques inscribed with the Bill of Rights soon to be shipped across the country.
The Henry Ford Museum
The Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, MI, a landmark of American history and culture, is home to a huge collection of artifacts from the past century and beyond. The collection includes presidents’ cars, 1950s era golden arches, steam trains, Abraham Lincoln’s chair, and much more. The Judge Keith came to visit one of the most important artifacts the museum has on display: the bus that Rosa Parks was sitting on when she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger.
Judge Keith, an admirer of Parks’ actions in Alabama, quickly became friends with her upon her arrival in Detroit. Mother Parks, as Judge Keith came to know her, came to Detroit in search of safe housing. When she had trouble finding and securing a place to live, Keith helped her find accommodations. He remained friends with her for the rest of her life, often helping her when in need and assisting in taking care of her as she aged. While observing the historic bus, Judge Keith fondly remembered Rosa Parks and their special friendship while recollecting the Jim Crow era of blatant segregation and racism.
Week of Interviews in Metro Detroit
June 23rd - 30th
After returning from Cincinnati, the production team returned to Detroit to conduct a series of interviews with individuals involved in some of Judge Keith’s major cases. The first interview was with Willie Stamps, the primary plaintiff in the Judge Keith’s 1973 case Stamps v. Detroit Edison Co. The team then conducted a series of interviews with lawyers who aregued some of he definig cases of Judge Keith’s career: Michael Barnhart (Garrett v. Hamtramck, 1973), James Andary (Baker v. City of Detroit, 1979), and Elbert Hatchett (Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac, 1970). Some of Judge Keith’s friends were also interviewed with Alex Parish, the Judge Keith’s personal lawyer, and Eric Clay, a former law clerk of Judge Keith’s who now sits on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Historian Melba Boyd, Chair of the Africana Studies Department at Wayne State University, rounded off a jam-packed week of interviews.
June 18th - 20th
Our seven-person crew, followed Judge Keith to Cincinnati where hears cases as a member of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Keith’s trip is never complete without a dinner at McCormick and Shmick’s Seafood restaurant, usually accompanied by colleagues from the court, or past and present law clerks. To capture this special tradition, the production team followed the Judge to dinner with former law clerk, and now Judge, Eric Clay and soon-to-be Chief Judge of the Sixth Circuit, R. Guy Cole. Also while in Cincinnati, the crew explored the Court of Appeals' courthouse and Judge Keith’s chambers.
"Isn't love a funny thing?"
Tuesday, June 3rd
In his remarks on the unveiling of "A Garland of Praise Songs for Rosa Parks," a new artwork commemorating the life of the civil rights pioneer, Judge Keith told the surprising story of how Ms. Parks and Nelson Mandela first met. The Judge spoke fondly of his memories of Ms. Parks, the woman he knew affectionately as Mother Parks, at the Keith Center for Civil Rights. At the dedication ceremony, artist Lester Johnson unveiled the artwork; 26 hand crafted totems of wood, fiber, and fabric that will live forever at the Keith Center.
The Crew Heads to the Capitol
May 20th - 22nd
The production team followed Judge Keith to Washington, D.C. where he gave a book signing for his recently released biography, Crusader for Justice. The book signing and question and answer session were organized by two of his former law clerks, Judge David Simmons, chief administrative law judge for the District of Columbia commission on human rights, and Claude Bailey, partner at Venable, LLP, who put together a beautiful reception at the Venable law firm in downtown Washington. Over 200 people attended the event, including former law clerks, friends, colleagues, and other admirers of the Judge. The line to have books signed stretched all the way around the expansive conference room, but despite the large number of people, Judge Keith made sure to address every book individually and take pictures with everyone who wanted one.
During the event, the production team filmed the Q&A and also held individual interviews with former law clerks both that night and the following two days. Everyone who knows him is eager to tell us entertaining stories about the Judge and their love and adoration for him is obvious.
A Visit to Judge Keith's Past and Present Homes
Saturday, May 17th
Over the weekend, the production team organized a shoot in Judge Keith’s childhood neighborhood, in the Fisher area of Detroit. Jesse and Reuben picked the Judge up from his apartment and drove him to the site of his former home on Hudson Street. While driving through his old neighborhood, Judge Keith was eager to point out where his childhood friends had lived and where he used to spend time when he was a young boy.
Keith’s childhood home is no longer standing, an empty field of long grass is now in its place. A few of the surrounding houses are occupied, but many have long since been abandoned. Upon his arrival to Hudson Street, he greeted a man who now lives across from the site of Keith’s childhood home. Although the two had never met before, they reminisced about the neighborhood as if they were old friends.
After the tour, Judge Keith invited us back to his apartment where he served us all cherry pie and showed the crew around his home, adorned with photos and other souvenirs of his life: everything from photos taken with family members, snapshots with public figures such as Aretha Franklin and past presidents, and a couple of gavel-shaped lollipops.
Field Trip to the Jim Crow Museum
Thursday, May 15th
After researching Black History museums in the Detroit area, the production team discovered the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, located on the Ferris State University campus in Big Rapids, Michigan. With two cars packed full of film equipment and the production team, we made the three hour trek, with a lunch break at Germain’s Restaurant in Saranac, to the western part of the state to document examples of racist memorabilia and to interview the curator of the museum, Dr. David Pilgrim.
The museum, tucked away in the basement of the university’s library, was more than we could have hoped. The display cases were packed with objects from over a century ago to today, showing how blacks were, and still are, portrayed through caricatures and stereotypes on dolls, advertisements, decorations, posters, board games, and children’s books. Dr. Pilgrim was thrilled to have us visit the museum, pointing out specific objects from segregation signs, to the pen that signed the Civil Rights Act and from Mammy dolls to recent caricatures of Barack Obama. The production team also conducted an interview with Dr. Pilgrim who explained the goal of the museum: to teach tolerance through intolerance.
The Gang's All Here
Tuesday, May 13th
With the entire crew settled in the Detroit area, the production team made a short trip to Judge Keith’s chambers in downtown Detroit to be formally introduced. Judge Keith warmly welcomed the team into his spacious chambers, the walls lined floor to ceiling with memorabilia from his life: colorful paintings, framed newspaper clippings, commemorative plaques, an expansive series of law reference books, and an impressive collection of photos of the Judge with his friends, family, colleagues, and prominent public figures from Aretha Franklin to Rosa Parks to Barack Obama. Judge Keith was preparing a speech for a leadership conference the next day, but encouraged the team to sit around his conference table for a few minutes to discuss the project and future shoots, often claiming that he “doesn’t deserve all this special treatment”. On the way out, the Judge left us all with a warm goodbye, a handshake, and a bise on the cheek.
Preliminary filming begins in Cincinnati
March 18th – 21st
Our Director, Cinematographer and Assistant Camera all made the trek down to Ohio in March for four days of preliminary filming. Jesse, Reuben, and Marcus followed Judge Keith as he traveled to Cincinnati, a trip he makes four times a year. As a Senior Judge on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Keith regularly visits the Sixth Circuit Courthouse in Cincinnati to hear and rule on cases before the court. While our team was in town, they filmed Judge Keith in and around the courthouse, and going about his daily activities. Make sure to check out this excerpt of Judge Keith showing us where his portrait now hangs in the courthouse.
© 2014 The Judge Damon J. Keith Documentary Project.
Background image courtesy of Jennifer Ferris.