“Democracies,” federal Judge Damon J. Keith once wrote, “die behind closed doors.”
And to many, Keith — a civil rights warrior and one of the nation’s longest-serving federal jurists — was viewed as the beacon that they so desperately needed, a brightly shining symbol of hope, inspiration and, of course, justice.
That beacon dimmed for the last time on Sunday morning, when Keith died at his Detroit home surrounded by family. He was 96.
But at Wayne State University — where Keith earned a law degree and had the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights named in his honor — his memory and legacy continue to shine even amid the grief.
“We are all mourning the loss of this outstanding civil rights pioneer, federal judge and friend of Wayne State University,” said Wayne State President M. Roy Wilson. “I had the honor of being sworn in as the 12th president of Wayne State by Judge Keith, but it meant even more to me to have met the man. At my swearing-in ceremony, Judge Keith said, ‘For Wayne State to be great, it has to be good.’ Since then, I have used those words as my guiding light in the leadership of Wayne State.”
The grandson of slaves, Keith was born in Detroit on July 4, 1922, and graduated from Northwestern High School in 1939. He earned a bachelor’s from West Virginia State College in 1943. After serving in the U.S. Army, Keith graduated from Howard University School of Law with a J.D. in 1949. He married the late Dr. Rachel Boone in 1953, and the couple had three daughters.
As the first member of his family to earn a college degree, Keith received his master of laws from Wayne State University in 1956 and remained committed to his alma mater throughout his life. The university opened the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights on campus in 2011 to promote the educational, economic and political power of underrepresented communities in urban settings. Keith was deeply committed to civil rights for all people, and the center upholds his values in everything it does.
“We’ve lost one of the greatest civil rights champions of our time. For more than 50 years, Judge Damon J. Keith has been an unwavering voice for those who have been unjustly silenced,” said Richard A. Bierschbach, dean of the Wayne State University Law School. “I know that his legacy will live on in the eyes and hearts of our Damon J. Keith Scholars and every student who learns the law in the center that bears his name.”
Keith’s law clerks have included former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, a number of judges and law professors, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, and Rashad Hussain, who served as deputy associate counsel to former President Barack Obama.
His award-winning biography, Crusader for Justice: Federal Judge Damon J. Keith, written by Wayne Law Professor Peter Hammer, director of the Keith Center, and journalist Trevor Coleman, was published by Wayne State University Press in 2015. The book inspired a documentary, Walk with Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith, directed by Jesse Nesser, which premiered in Detroit in 2015.
While no synopsis of Keith’s accomplishments could ever adequately tell his full story, his five decades on the federal bench brought decisions that undeniably shaped — and reshaped — vast swaths of the American social and political landscape.
For instance, less than two years after being appointed a judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan by then-President Lyndon B. Johnson, Keith took on the highly publicized Davis v. School District of City of Pontiac case involving school discrimination. In a landmark ruling, Keith ordered the city of Pontiac to desegregate its schools — a decision that prompted the Ku Klux Klan to issue death threats and firebomb 10 district school buses.
In 1971, Keith ruled that then-President Richard M. Nixon and U.S. Attorney General John N. Mitchell had violated the Fourth Amendment rights of anti-war radicals the White Panthers by wiretapping their conversation.
Keith’s poignant observation, which he uttered in 2001 in response to secret and unconstitutional deportations of Arab and Muslim immigrants, gained new life in 2017 after The Washington Post tweaked it for its masthead: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
These and other decisions shaped the image of Keith — only the sixth black person in U.S. history to serve on the federal court of appeals — as a sharp, fair-minded jurist who was also a compass for courage and justice.
“Greatness is not randomly conferred on people,” Wilson said. “It comes from a place in the heart and the soul that defies easy explanation. Damon J. Keith was a great man. The Wayne State community mourns his passing and pledges to honor his legacy through our work in the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, and by striving to prepare the next generation of leaders to carry his work forward.”
The family of Judge Damon J. Keith has requested that gifts in his memory be made to the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School to empower the next generation of civil rights leaders. Wayne State will notify the family of the thoughtful contribution. For help making a gift online, please contact the Office of Gift Processing at 313-577-2263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.