Damon J. Keith
Keith, Damon 1922–
Damon Keith 1922–
Damon Keith spent his career upholding the law and the Constitution as a means of social change. For more than 40 years Keith has demonstrated his profound love of and respect for the law and those it protects as evidenced in his judicial decisions throughout his career. He is a principled, precise, and decisive individual whose concern for the civil rights of all individuals won him a place on the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals—the second highest court in the land.
Born in Detroit on July 4,1922 to Perry Keith and Annie Louise Williams, Damon Jerome Keith was the youngest of six children and the only child of the Keith’s born in Detroit. Keith’s father moved his family to Detroit from Georgia and went to work for Ford Motor Company at their River Rouge foundry. An industrious man, Perry Keith also ran a part-time real estate business—P. A. Keith & Sons. Education was important to the elder Keith and Damon was the only one of his siblings to go to college and fulfill his father’s lifelong dream. His respect for his father is enormous. In a speech at a Freedom Fund Dinner, the Detroit Free Press quoted Keith as saying, “The finest man in my life was my father, who was the epitome of what a human being should be. He was my motivation and my desire to make something of myself.” This feeling spawned from the younger Keith’s early years growing up as an African American in Detroit at a time when there were very few black role models. It was not until college, that Keith found any other African Americans that he could admire and aspire to emulate.
In 1939, after graduating from Detroit’s Northwestern High School, Keith enrolled at West Virginia State—a primarily black college. It was there that he met his first black Ph.D., first black college president, and prominent black leaders who spoke on the college campus. After completing his bachelor’s degree, Keith was drafted into a then segregated U. S. Army and served from 1943-46. His armed services experience further reinforced Keith’s desire to study law as a means of rectifying segregation. Keith served in an “all-colored” unit in the quartermaster corps. Inducted as a private and discharged as staff sergeant, Keith describes his military service as “absolutely demeaning.” All of the officers of
At a Glance…
Born Damon Jerome Keith, July 4,1922; son of Perry Keith (a Ford Motor Co. Rouge Plant foundry worker) and Annie Louise (Williams) Keith; married Rachel Boone, 1953, three daughters;. Education: WV StateColl., B.A., 1939; Howard Univ. Law School, LL.B., 1949; Politics: Democrat.
Admitted to the Ml Bar, 1950; Assoc, Loomis, Jones, Piper, & Colden, 1950-52; Friend of the Court Enforcement Attorney, 1952-56; Partner, Colden, Snowden, Smith, and Keith, 1957-61; WayneCounty Bd. of Supvrs., 1958-63; Detroit Housing Comm., 1958-67, vp, 1959, pres., 1960-67; Comrnr, Ml State Bar, 1960-67; Legal Staff, Detroit Bd. of Educ, 1961; Chair, Civil Rights Comm., Detroit Bar Assn., 1964; Chair, Ml Civil Rights Comm., 1964-67; Established prominent law firm of Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown, and Wahls, 1964-67; Nominated by Sen. Phillip Hart and appointed U.S. Dist Judge (Eastern Dist of MI), 1967; Appointed to U.S. Sixth Circuit Court by President Jimmy Carter, 1976; Acquired senior status in U.S. Sixth Circuit Court, 1997.
Selected awards: Natl. Newspaper Publishers Russum Award, 1974; “Judge of the Year/Natl. Conf. of Black Lawyers, 1974; Bill of Rights Award, Jewish Comm. Council; NAACP, Springarn Medal, 1974; Distinguished Public Serv. Award, Nati. Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 1988; C. Francis Stratford Award, Natl. Bar Assn., 1992; Thurgood Marshall Award, 1997.
Honorary Doctorates of Law: WV State Coll., Wayne State Univ., Howard Univ., Lincoln Univ., Univ. of Detroit, Atlanta Univ., Detroit Coll. of Law, Univ. of Ml, NY Law School, Ml State Univ., MarygroveColl., Detroit Inst, of Tech., Shaw Coll., Central State Univ., Georgetown Univ., OH State Univ., Coll. of William and Mary, Yale Univ.
Member: State Bar of Ml, Detroit Bar Assn., Natl. Bar Assn., NAACP.
Addresses: Office —Rm 240, Federal Court House, 231 W. Lafayette, Detroit, Ml 48226.
the “all-colored” unit were white.
Keith enrolled and was accepted at the University of Detroit Law School but at the urging of his friend, Dr. John W. Davis, president of West Virginia State College, he entered Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. Dr. Davis convinced Keith that Howard University was the best place in the country to prepare for civil rights work and Keith agreed. It was there that Keith first heard Thurgood Marshall and other masterful litigators who would practice their Supreme Court arguments in front of the students. This experience, more than any other, brought clarity and direction to Keith’s career. At Howard he had learned the importance of the Constitution and how it was the best means of achieving social change and equal justice under the law. The students often helped with the preparation of important civil rights cases through mock trials, assisting with research, and listening to the arguments that would be presented before the Supreme Court. They would then have the unique opportunity of attending the presentation of these cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
After completing his Law degree at Howard, Keith returned to Detroit. In 1950 while working as a janitor, Keith took his Bar exam and passed. The early 1950s still proved to be a hostile environment even for a well-educated black attorney. His career started as a law clerk in the prominent black law firm of Loomis, Jones, Piper, and Colden as did many young black attorneys of that day. Prior to 1950, there were no black judges in Michigan and few black attorneys filled key government positions. Keith became the first black attorney hired by the Friend of the Court in Wayne County. This position helped Keith learn the finer points of litigation. He held that post for four years.
In 1956, Keith returned to private practice with the firm he had worked for as a law clerk. In 1964, Keith established his own law practice which flourished even at a time when private practices were difficult for black lawyers. As his practice grew beyond his ability to handle the case load, Keith began looking for the “brightest young legal minds” he could find. Eventually joining the law firm were Nathan Conyers and Herman Anderson, both graduates from Wayne State University as well as Joseph N. Brown of the University of Detroit, and Myron H. Wahls of Northwestern University Law School. The law firm became known as Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown & Wahls. All of the law firm’s partners were members of the National Lawyers Guild, an organization heavily involved in civil rights issues.
Consequently the partners went to the deep South to help with many human rights issues including civil and voting rights. Because of its prominence in the Detroit community, the law firm of Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown, & Wahls represented many of the largest black business establishments in the city at that time such as: the House of Diggs, Stinson Funeral Home, Great Lakes Mutual Insurance Company, Diggs Insurance, and professional baseball star Willie Horton (Keith’s legal ward).
One of the many drawbacks faced by black lawyers in the 1950s was the lack of black judges. According to Keith as quoted in the Wayne Law Review, “Many of the white judges were not nice to us—they didn’t treat us as they did other lawyers, with dignity and respect.” He went on to say, “Some were actually outright mean, if not nasty, and belittling in their dealings with black attorneys.” The judges treatment of black lawyers also impacted them in other ways. They received fewer numbers of case assignments from the courts and because of the treatment black lawyers received from the bench, even black clients sought out white lawyers because they felt they had a better chance of being more fairly treated. This was a lesson that Keith carried with him when he was appointed to the bench years later. Mindful of his treatment as a young lawyer practicing before the powerful and influential white judges, Keith was determined that any lawyer pleading a case in his courtroom would receive the respect and dignity due an officer of the court. His reputation proceeded him.
In one of his most important and famous judicial decisions, United States v. Sinclair, the White Panther Case, Keith’s treatment of both attorneys and their clients was borne out. William N. Kunstler, the attorney for the defendants, tried the case before Judge Keith. Kunstler wrote of Judge Keith in his autobiography, My Life as a Radical Lawyer, “In Chicago, where Judge Hoffman turned off and didn’t want to deal with anything and the marshals in the room were often confrontational, the defendants reacted accordingly. But the White Panther case was very different. I am often asked how judges can stop disruptive trials.” Kunstler continued, “One answer is to have more judges like Damon Keith. On the first day of trial, he called the prosecutors and defense lawyers into his chambers for a conference; he served, as I recall, very delicious buns and coffee. He broadly hinted to Len and me that he did not expect this trial to be similar to Chicago. We assured him that unless we had the same type of provocation that permeated the Chicago trial, we didn’t expect any difficulties.” In all of his years on the bench, Keith is proud of the fact that he has never had to hold or even threaten a lawyer or anyone else in his courtroom with contempt of court. A direct reflection of his treatment of others.
During his years of private practice, Keith worked tirelessly for civil rights. He also became politically active within the Democratic party. He served on many boards and commissions such as the Wayne County Board of Supervisors, the Detroit Housing Commission, Commissioner of the State Bar of Michigan, and the chair of the Civil Rights Commission of the Detroit Bar. In his early career as a lawyer, Keith demonstrated the courage and compassion that followed him throughout his life on the bench as a judge devoted to the Constitution and all that it encompassed.
Keith was rewarded for his tireless efforts in 1967 when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. He served as Chief Judge from 1975-77. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Judge Keith to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court. Keith soon distinguished himself as he consistently and courageously defended civil rights under the Constitution. As a federal district judge, he drew a number of important cases. His handling of these cases and his subsequent decisions gained him national prominence. Many of his cases had far-reaching effects. Among his most prominent are: Davis v. School District of Pontiac, Inc. (school desegregation) (1970) in which Keith ruled that the Pontiac, Michigan School Board was responsible for taking the “necessary steps” to alleviate the preexisting segregation and begin busing.; United States v. Sinclair (1971) Keith ruled that the federal government had no power to tap wires in domestic cases without a warrant. This decision is also know as “The Keith Decision.”; Garrett v. City of Hamtramck (1971) in which Keith ruled that City of Hamtramck, Michigan practiced “negro removal” under the guise of urban renewal and ordered the city to build new public housing; Stamp v. Detroit Edison Co. (1973) Keith ruled that the company had practiced systematic racial discrimination and must assume an aggressive affirmative action plan; Baker v. City of Detroit (1980) Municipal affirmative action plan; Young v. Klutznick (1981) U.S. Census undercounts of urban populations (Keith, dissenting); Detroit Police Officers Association v. Young (1979) and Scott v. Memphis Fire Department (1982) Affirmative action and remedies for prior employment discrimination.; United States v. Blanton (1983) (en banc) Jury selection and pretrial publicity in criminal case (Keith, dissenting); Rabidue v. Osceola Refining Co. (1986) Sex discrimination (Keith, concurring in part, dissenting in part).
Keith’s decision in the United States v. Sinclair case is, according to the legal community, his most famous opinion. According to an explanation of the case in the Wayne Law Review, “In Sinclair, which is commonly known as “The Keith Decision,” he ruled that the Attorney General does not have the right to tap wires in domestic cases without a warrant and that the Fourth Amendment requires the federal government to disclose taped conversations obtained through illegal electronic surveillance.” Keith’s decision was unanimously upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court in both the Sinclair and Davis cases.
Because of his devotion to the law and the Constitution, Chief Justice Warren Burger appointed Judge Keith to Chair the Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution of the Sixth Circuit in 1985. In 1987, he was appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist as the National Chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution, and in 1990, President George Bush recognized Keith’s contribution to constitutional law by appointing him to the Commission on the Bicentennial of the Constitution.
Keith’s devotion to civil rights, the law and the Constitution have been recognized by his peers and the legal community as evidenced by the many awards and honors bestowed upon him over the years. During its centennial year in 1995, the Detroit Legal News bestowed on Keith and 15 other prominent Detroit lawyers, the title of legal legend. Of Keith the Detroit Legal News wrote, “For almost three decades Judge Keith has used his position as a federal judge to bring the people of Detroit together. Despite powerful economic and political forces working against the City, the judge has been an inspirational standard bearer for everyone who believes the City can be—and must be—revitalized. The United States Constitution which is suppose to protect the noble concept of equality, is an essential part of his quest.”
Damon J. Keith is also a devoted husband and father. He met and married Rachel Boone, M.D., a native of Liberia, in 1953 while she was completing her residency at Detroit Receiving Hospital. He has three daughters. Cecile Keith-Brown, an honors graduate from the University of Michigan has a master’s in fine arts degree from the California Institute of the Arts. She is married to Daryle Brown and the mother of Keith’s two grandchildren—Nia and Camara. Debbie Keith is a graduate of Princeton University with a masters degree in languages from New York University, and Gilda Keith attended Duke University but transferred to Oberlin to study English and Music. She later studied flute at Boston University.
On November 4, 1993 as a living memorial to this legal titan, Wayne State University announced the creation of the Damon J. Keith Law Collection. This one-of-a-kind collection of the contributions of African Americans to the United States judicial system will be housed in the Walter P. Reuther Library on the main campus of Wayne State University in Detroit. The collection will contain records and photographs of prominent African American lawyers and judges. Judge Keith plans to work on the Collection and its educational programs. He is quoted in the Wayne Law Review as saying, “The archive that bears my name will last the longest of the many honors I have received.”
Throughout his career, Judge Keith has distinguished himself not only by his judicial decisions and opinions but as a compassionate and caring man. He has gained the respect and admiration of his peers, friends, and the nation at-large. And for his dedication and devotion to upholding the Constitution and all that encompasses, Judge Damon Jerome Keith has been awarded what many in the legal community consider this nation’s top award for long-term contributions to the advancement of civil rights, civil liberties, and human rights in the United States—the 1997 Thurgood Marshall Award. From his office in downtown Detroit, Judge Keith told Jim Dyer of the Detroit News, “This is a very moving and humbling experience. If I would not have met Thurgood Marshall, it would have drastically changed my life. He told me that through the law and the Constitution, we could challenge the theory of racism. He was the pivotal legal giant who changed my life.” Keith wanted to make a difference and he did.
American Bar Association, News Release, May, 9, 1997.
Damon J. Keith Law Collection, Biograph, Wayne State University.
Damon J. Keith Law Collection, Chronology, Wayne State University.
Detroit News, March 2, 1994; May 16, 1994; August 11, 1994; April 1, 1997; April 10, 1997; May 7, 1997.
Jet, February 6, 1995, v87, n13, p. 21.
Oakland Press, September 1, 1996.
Wayne Law Review, Winter 1996, v42, n2, pp. 321-341.
—Paula M. Morin
Keith, Damon Jerome
Keith, Damon Jerome
July 4, 1922
The federal judge Damon Jerome Keith was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He earned an A.B. in 1943 from West Virginia State College, then served as a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army from 1943 to 1946. In 1949 he received an LL.B. from Howard University. He returned to Detroit and from 1951 to 1955 worked as an attorney at the Office of the Friend of the Court. In 1956 he received an LL.M. from Wayne State University. Keith was a founding member of the Detroit law firm of Keith, Conyers, Anderson, Brown, and Whals, where he was a full partner from 1964 to 1967. During his years in private practice, he was active in civil rights work as president of the Detroit Housing Commission (1958–1967), chairman of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (1964–1967), and in other organizations, as well as being an active member in both the Detroit Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America and the Tabernacle Baptist Church.
In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Federal District Court for Michigan. Among his most important decisions, often referred to by legal scholars as the Keith Decision, was the case of United States v. U.S. District Court (1971), in which he ruled that warrantless wiretaps, even those ordered by the president, are unconstitutional.
In 1974 Keith was awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)'s Spin-garn Medal. Three years later President Jimmy Carter appointed Keith to the Sixth Circuit, comprising Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan. In 1979, in a widely noticed opinion, Keith, who has a reputation as a liberal Democrat, ruled in favor of the Detroit Police Department's affirmative action hiring program.
Keith has served as the first vice president of the Detroit chapter of the NAACP. In 1987 Chief Justice William Rehnquist appointed Keith national chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution. In 1993 Wayne State University established, in Keith's honor, the Damon J. Keith Law Collection, the first archival collection devoted entirely to African-American lawyers and judges.
Keith was awarded the Thurgood Marshall Award in 1997 and the Edward J. Devitt Award for Distinguished Service to Justice in 1998. In 2001 an official portrait of Keith was unveiled in the U.S. Courthouse in Detroit. In 2004, at the age of eighty-two, Keith was still serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
See also National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Spingarn Medal
"Damon Jerome Keith." Contemporary Black Biography, Vol. 16. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1997.
"Federal Judge Damon Keith Honored by Michigan Governor for Twenty Years on Bench." Jet, December 21, 1987, p. 14.
louise p. maxwell (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005