Damon Keith: Civil rights crusader and campaigner for justice

A passionate progressive known for barring the Nixon administration from conducting warrantless wire taps

Emily Langer
Wednesday 08 May 2019 14:18
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Damon Keith, one of the most prominent African-American judges on the federal bench, upheld civil rights and civil liberties in influential rulings that included a 1971 decision barring the Nixon administration from conducting warrantless domestic wiretaps.

Keith, who has died aged 96, served in the federal judiciary for more than 50 years beginning in 1967, when president Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, named him to the US district court in Detroit, with jurisdiction over eastern Michigan. Ten years later, president Jimmy Carter, also a Democrat, elevated him to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati.

Keith took senior status in 1995 but continued hearing cases, including on secret deportation for alleged terrorists after 9/11. The George W Bush administration, he declared, had unconstitutionally sought to “uproot people’s lives, outside the public eye, and behind a closed door”. “Democracies die behind closed doors,” he wrote in the oft-cited 2002 majority opinion.

The case provided a sort of legal bookend to his decision in the civil liberties case during the Nixon administration, which helped propel him to national attention. In 1972, the US Supreme Court upheld Keith’s ruling ordering the government to turn over transcripts of conversations it had recorded in the course of investigating a radical group accused of planning to bomb a CIA office in Michigan.

Keith credited his drive in large part to his father, who worked for $5 a day in a Ford Motor plant and implored his son to go to college. Another important mentor was future US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who frequented Howard University when Keith was a law student there in the late 1940s.

“Thurgood would say, ‘When you finish Howard Law, I want you to use the law as a means for social change,’ ” Keith said in 2016. “That is what I’ve tried to do in my lifetime.”

He venerated the constitution as a way towards equality for African-Americans who had been excluded from schools, professions, neighbourhoods, politics and other arenas of civic life. In 1971, he ordered that about 10,000 of the 24,000 students in the Pontiac, Michigan, public school system be bused to achieve racial integration. It was one of the first such orders in the north of the country.

Shortly before the order took affect, 10 Pontiac school buses were firebombed, a crime for which five Ku Klux Klansmen were later convicted. Keith received death threats.

“I don’t scare easily,” he said in 2016. The Supreme Court declined to review the case, allowing busing to proceed.

In 1975, Keith ordered Hamtramck, Michigan, a town neighbouring Detroit, to relocate 500 African-Americans who had been displaced from their homes during federally supported urban renewal projects that critics denounced as “negro removal”.

Writing that the city had “ignored their requests for assistance, failed to investigate complaints and in no way compensated such displacees for the loss suffered”, he ordered the town to provide the former residents with new, affordable housing.

More than 30 years passed before the housing was built, but when he saw keys exchange hands, “it was meaningful to me as a human being”, he said in 2010.

Keith endured racism throughout his career – from his time as a janitor at The Detroit News, where a white reporter derisively told him he should “keep mopping” instead of studying for the bar examination, to an incident at a 1991 conference on the constitution’s bicentennial, where he was mistaken for a parking attendant.

In 2016, he wrote a forceful dissent when the federal appellate panel on which he served upheld tighter regulations on absentee and provisional voting ballots in Ohio.

“Rather than honour the men and women whose murdered lives opened the doors of our democracy and secured our right to vote,” he wrote, the majority had forsaken the votes of “the most defenceless”. Keith included in his decision photographs of civil rights martyrs including Martin Luther King Jr and lynching victim Emmett Till. In an interview with Slate magazine, he later denounced “the racist attitude of the majority”.

“Look at those pictures,” he said of the images he included. “These are men and women who died for the right to vote. I was really so hurt by the decision of the majority of the court. My grandparents lived in Georgia, and they were not allowed to vote because of racism. I thought about them.”

Damon Jerome Keith was born in Detroit on 4 July 1922. His parents were from Atlanta, where his father ran small businesses including a general store and a photography studio before migrating north to work for Ford. “Most kids in my neighbourhood did not go to college,” the Detroit Free Press later quoted Keith as saying. “Most went to Jackson prison.”

His mother’s cousin, who was the wife of the president of what was then West Virginia State College, encouraged Keith to enrol at the historically black institution, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1943. He served in a segregated army unit during the Second World War, an experience that drove his interest in the law. “After coming back and having to ride on the back of buses while seeing German soldiers ride in the front,” he recalled, “I made up my mind I was going to become a lawyer.”

My grandparents lived in Georgia, and they were not allowed to vote because of racism. I thought about them

Damon Keith, former US district judge

He received a law degree from Howard University in 1949 and a master of laws degree from Wayne State University in Detroit, whose law school today houses the Damon J Keith Centre for Civil Rights. In the early years of his career, Keith practised law in Detroit while also holding civic roles including leading the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. In 1953 he married Rachel Boone, a physician. She died in 2007. He is survived by three daughters, Debbie Keith and Gilda Keith, both of Detroit, and Cecile Keith Brown of Chicago, and two granddaughters.

Keith made his most noted ruling in the Nixon administration case involving domestic wiretaps. The administration argued that the government had acted within its lawful authority to protect the country from internal threat, an argument that Keith rejected, as did the Supreme Court, in an eight to zero decision, citing fourth amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“History abundantly documents the tendency of government – however benevolent and benign in its motives – to view with suspicion those who most fervently dispute its policies,” Justice Lewis Powell Jr wrote in his decision. “The price of lawful public dissent must not be a dread of subjection to an unchecked surveillance power.”

Keith’s honours included the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. He was the subject of the 2016 documentary film Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith, directed by Jesse Nesser.

“I really didn’t know what kind of judge I’d be,” Keith once said, reflecting on his earliest days on the bench. “Putting on the robes can be an awesome responsibility. You have the chance to find out a lot about yourself.”

Damon Keith, judge and civil rights campaigner, born 4 July 1922, died 28 April 2019

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