October 1991, a man stepped out of his car in Williamsburg, Virginia, turned to the first black person he saw and said, “Here boy, park this car.” The startled "boy" was a 69 year old man, a sitting federal judge, the chairman of the Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution and – it had been decided only one day earlier – his would be the only name to adorn plaques of the Bill of Rights soon to be installed in every federal courthouse in the United States. That name was Damon J. Keith.
Damon J. Keith has not always been a powerful or influential man. Born July 4, 1922 in Detroit, Michigan, he grew up poor in a segregated city, constantly reminded of his second-class status. After serving in a racially divided military in World War Two, he returned home to a nation that had defeated hatred and intolerance abroad, but had yet to bring full equality to its own shores. Keith often highlights that after the war he witnessed white German soldiers receive better treatment than he did as a black veteran. Keith wanted to take action against this injustice. So a journey began that would turn this former janitor into one of the preeminent jurists of the last fifty years. Keith did more than overcome personal obstacles, he altered the way we think about civil rights in America.
The values that Keith learned early in his life became those that he lived: fairness, justice, and, above all, equality under the law. His commitment to
Keith’s fight for justice has lasted for more than sixty years. In that time, his hope has never curdled into resentment, and his belief in the highest aspirations of American Democracy has never faltered. In a time when anger has increasing political and cultural currency, and extremism is ever more prevalent, it is important to be reminded of a different and nobler kind of civic engagement.
During his time on the bench, Judge Keith has become a figure of national importance, but his story has never been brought to a national audience.
Judge Frank Altimari, who had left the hotel with Judge Keith, began yelling at the man with the keys in his outstretched hand but Judge Keith gently stopped him,
taking his friend’s arm and saying, “Whom the Devil would destroy, he first makes angry.” A single moment in a long, passionate life, this perhaps best defines Keith’s legacy as well as the man himself: perseverance in the face of hate, understanding when confronted with anger, and compassion towards all, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, or cultural experience.
these ideals propelled him to judgeship, first when appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, and later when President Jimmy Carter named him to his current position as a judge for the United States 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. His guiding principles shaped what would become historic rulings on wire-tapping, segregation, workers’ rights, access to education, public housing and urban renewal, and issues of privacy.
Keith has served as a federal judge in Detroit for over forty-five years. In that time he has met with the last nine Presidents of the United States; forged friendships with political and cultural leaders such as Aretha Franklin, Bill Cosby, and Oprah Winfrey; and sat with world leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Through all of this, Keith has never lost sight of where he came from, or forgotten the obstacles he faced. When asked in an interview with the Detroit Free Press what advice he would give his grand-daughter and others who had recently become lawyers, he said, “I tell them ... they are walking on floors they did not have to scrub and they’re going through doors they did not open. I want you to scrub floors so people who follow you ... can walk on them, and open doors that didn’t open for you ... We’ve got to leave a legacy.”