Remembering the Life and Legacy of Judge Damon Keith

Stephen Henderson: “He knew we could be good, and true, to one another. He believed that someday, we could be even better.”

A civil rights giant and legal icon passed away early Sunday morning.

Judge Damon Keith was 96. A lifelong Detroiter, he devoted more than 50 years on the bench to upholding equal protection and defending democracy.

His decisions in several high profile cases over those five decades cemented him as one of the great champions of civil rights. They also required immense courage: He stood up to not only one, but two presidents of the United States, and also received death threats for his rulings.

Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson and guests reflect on the life, career, and legacy of Judge Keith.

Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson moved to Michigan 15 years ago to clerk for Keith. “I owe him my career,” she tells Henderson.

Peter Hammer is a professor of law and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. 

Luther Keith is Damon Keith’s nephew, and the executive director of ARISE Detroit!

Click on the audio player above to hear those conversations with Benson, Hammer, and Keith on Detroit Today.

Stephen Henderson offers this remembrance of Judge Keith:

Judge Damon Keith, someone I thought of as a role model and mentor, and more importantly as a friend, died Sunday at age 96.

He had such an extraordinary life, with 50 years on the federal bench, that it’s hard to even catalogue the things he changed, the ideas he put forward. He believed in, and fought for, civil rights in every context. And his rulings on everything from racial discrimination to government transparency stand as pillars in the halls of our legal system.

He believed in fairness and justice. He believed in democracy and opportunity. And he believed in us, Americans of all color, creed, economic station and ethnic origin. He knew we could be good, and true, to one another. He believed that someday, we could be even better.

For so many of us in southeast Michigan, though, Judge Keith was also a personal beacon, a guide and shining light who touched us deeply with his neverending supply of grace and support. He was our personal hero, too, and the loss stings all the more.

Whenever I saw Judge Keith, he wanted to tell me stories about my grandfather, former UAW official William Beckham Sr., and the way the two of them worked together in the 60s and 70s to build, and then to gird, the opportunities that my generation of black Detroiters would enjoy. It was his way of pointing out connection with me, but also a way of pushing me along, letting me know that there was destiny and kinship behind his affinity for me, and that there was a powerful foundation for the possibilities that defined my life, especially my life here in Detroit.

There are so many who would tell the same story about Judge Keith.



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