The following article about Judge Damon J. Keith first appeared in State magazine, West Virginia State University's flagship publication.
His eyes have witnessed firsthand some of the most historic moments of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and his words and actions have protected the constitutional rights of untold thousands of Americans.
Yet, for U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit Judge Damon J. Keith it all started on the campus of what was then West Virginia State College.
“West Virginia State College shaped my entire future,” Judge Keith said during the September, 2013 groundbreaking ceremony for a new residence hall that will bear his name. “I had gone to school in Detroit from kindergarten through high school and I had never had a black teacher. When I came here to West Virginia State College, it was all black at that time. We had black Ph.D.’s on the faculty. It looked as though the cataracts in my eyes were taken off because of my experience here. I felt motivated. Seeing these great black leaders come and inspire us as young black students.”
Growing up in Detroit, Mich., as one of six children during the Great Depression, Keith had no idea if he would even be able to attend college. His dad worked a factory job and money was tight. None of his brothers or sisters had been able to go on to college. But then a visit from his mother’s cousin to their home on Hudson Street in Detroit changed the course of Keith’s life.
“My mother had a cousin, Ethel, who was the wife of (long-time WVSC) President John W. Davis,” Keith recalled. “She stopped by our house for a visit and asked my mother where I was going to go to college. I had just graduated from high school in June. My mother said, ‘There’s no money here. We can’t afford to send him to college.’ Without hesitation, Mrs. Davis said, ‘Send him to West Virginia State College. We will find a job for him and see that he gets an education.’”
Keith said that at that time he had never been outside the city of Detroit, much less to another state, but he was excited by the prospects of getting a college education. He rode a train from Detroit to Institute and was met at the train depot by Mrs. Davis, who, as promised, had arranged for a job for the young Keith on campus.
“We used to have a movie every Saturday night,” Keith said. “And I used to clean the movie theater after the movie, and then I waited tables. I worked my way through.”
While at State, Keith was a member of the debate club, ran track and also was active with his fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha. He lived in room 314C of Prillerman Hall, which he recalls fondly to this day.
When it came time to graduate, his father, who had been suffering from severe health problems, was able to come to Institute to see campus for himself.
“My dad was very sick. My mother thought he was going to pass. We all did. He said, ‘Damon, I just wish the Good Lord would keep me around so I can see you finish college.’ He came down to see me graduate. After the graduation ceremony, we walked around this campus and he said, ‘God kept his promise to me that I could see you graduate. I’m ready to go.’ I went home and two days after getting there my dad passed. I’m glad he stayed here long enough to see me graduate from this great college.”
Keith graduated from State in 1943 and joined the U.S. Army for a three-year stint during the height of World War II. When he returned from the service, he said that President Davis encouraged him to attend law school and work through the legal system to change civil rights laws. Keith remembers daily the impact that Davis had on his life as he wears a watch that the long-serving West Virginia State president gave to him.
Keith would go on to graduate from the Howard University Law School in 1949 and the Wayne State University Law School in 1956. He has served as a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit since 1977. Prior to his appointment to the Court of Appeals, Judge Keith served as Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.
As a member of the federal judiciary, Keith has stood as a courageous defender of the constitutional and civil rights of all people. In United States v. Sinclair, commonly referred to as “the Keith Decision,” the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed Judge Keith’s landmark ruling prohibiting President Nixon and the federal government from engaging in warrantless wiretapping in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
More recently, in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, Keith stood up to President George W. Bush during the aftermath of 9/11. Writing for a unanimous United States Court of Appeals panel, Judge Keith declared “Democracies die behind closed doors,” and ruled it unlawful for the Bush administration to conduct deportation hearings in secret whenever the government asserted that the people involved might be linked to terrorism.
Keith is the recipient of numerous awards, most notably, the NAACP’s highest award, the Spingarn Medal, whose past recipients include the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Justice Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks and General Colin Powell. Other prominent honors include the American Bar Association’s Thurgood
Marshall Award, the Distinguished Public Service Award from the National Anti-Defamation League and the Detroit Urban League’s Distinguished Warrior Award.
In 2005, Harvard University’s Department of Afro-American Studies included Judge Keith in its African-American National Biography, a collection of biographies profiling eminent African Americans. Also, in 2005, Judge Keith served as co-chair of the National Victory Celebration for the Farewell to Mrs. Rosa Parks, organizing memorial services across the country for Mrs. Parks.
As a community leader, Judge Keith organized local businessmen to provide housing for Mrs. Parks, after she was robbed and physically assaulted in her house. In 2004, Judge Keith was again responsible for rallying members of Detroit’s African-American business community, this time to save the city’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History from bankruptcy. The Detroit Board of Education has dedicated one of its primary schools in his honor, naming it “The Damon J. Keith Elementary School.”
Judge Keith has received over 40 honorary degrees from colleges and universities across the country. His most recent is an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree bestowed by Harvard University, on June 5, 2008. In 2010, Judge Keith was inducted into the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame in Atlanta. In 2011, the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School opened its doors.
A biography of Judge Keith, written by columnist Trevor W. Coleman, titled “Crusader for Justice: The Life and Amazing Times of Federal Judge Damon J. Keith,” was published in 2013.
Judge Keith was married for 53 years to the late Dr. Rachel Boone Keith. They had three daughters, Gilda Keith, Debbie Keith and Cecile Keith-Brown. Cecile and her husband, Daryle Brown, are the parents of Judge Keith’s granddaughters, Nia and Camara.