A man for mankind

by | Feb 24, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Detroit is a city whose treasures are often hidden. A Diego Rivera mural adorns the inner walls of a museum. The history of Motown music rests inside a converted house on West Grand Boulevard. One of the world’s great hockey teams labors in a stark, windowless arena by the river.

Tucked away on the second floor of the federal courthouse in Detroit, a cold monolith of concrete and steel, sits one more treasure: a treasure of a man. His name is Damon Keith. Born on the Fourth of July, he has graced this Earth for more than 90 years, nearly all of it here in Detroit.

His hair is white. His gait is slow. He is small in stature.

He casts a huge shadow.

Although he never had a black teacher as a child, Keith influenced countless promising black students throughout his life. Although his skin color denied him the right to join certain clubs or ride in certain train cars, Keith kicked down doors so that others could be blessed with equal opportunity. Although he once mopped the floors for a Detroit newspaper, Keith made headlines around the world with legal decisions.

And nearly every day, he makes his way to that office on Lafayette Boulevard, exits the elevator, walks down a corridor lined with photographs of virtually every major American personality over the last six decades – all posing with him – and, reaching his oversized office, he sits, reads the Bible, and prays.

Anyone who knows him feels the process should be reversed. We should ask the heavens every day that Damon Keith, senior judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, be given continued long life. Because, like other gleaming treasures behind gritty, urban facades, this man is part of Detroit’s most precious wattage.

He illuminates it from within.

Uncommonly optimistic

“Hey, how you been?” Damon Keith will exclaim, his voice high and reedy and sounding like an excited kid permanently on the edge of discovery. It is not an authoritarian voice, not a James Earl Jones boom – not, perhaps, what you expect from a judge. Which is perfect. Because his whole life, Damon Keith has been defying stereotypes.

When he was young, there were no black judges; yet he became one. He served his country in an “all-colored” unit during World War II, yet he would help shape the country with his legal views. During the meat of his career, many fell in line with the government; yet Keith stared down a president and an attorney general and was upheld both times. And when a dear friend named A. Alfred Taubman was on trial, he testified as a character witness, despite urgings from fellow law types to keep his sterling reputation out of it.

“He’s my friend,” Keith proclaimed, and that was enough.

He has a book coming out, “Crusader for Justice,” which chronicles his incredible life and times. It is excerpted here (Page 25A). It is a fine tome. I have read it in many stages. Judge Keith asked me a while back to write the foreword, a task that was a huge honor and more fun than work, because it gave me an excuse to sit and talk with him for hours.

We should all be so blessed.

Here is the grandson of slaves, the son of a Ford worker, a kid who played baseball in Detroit’s streets, ran track for a Detroit high school, took his future wife to a Lions game for their first date but told her he couldn’t root for them until they got some black players. He endured segregation in the South, discrimination in the North, and the drag of lowered expectations in his profession, yet never resorted to such things himself.

In truth, Damon Keith strikes you as uncommonly optimistic. He knows almost everyone, has a story about everything, even used to keep a space in his house lovingly referred to as “the Willie Horton room,” where the baseball star would occasionally stay if he got in trouble, and the judge would make sure he got to the ballpark the next day.

He accepts people as they are, even as he aspires to be as great as he can be. Those arguing before him speak admiringly of the fair and respectful tone he sets behind the bench, and of meetings in his chambers with coffee, pastry and civil conversation. As Kipling once put it, he walks with kings yet never loses the common touch.

And his “Hey, how you doing?” is often followed with a grandfatherly kiss.

Love and judgment share the robe.

The highest praise: fairness

Damon Keith will forever be known for famous court cases involving presidential power, illegal wiretapping, school desegregation, housing discrimination and employment discrimination. There is a civil rights center in Detroit that bears his name, and plaques in every federal courthouse in America that do the same.

And yet I read that paragraph, and it does nothing to describe the heart and soul of this man. He is simply a person who makes you feel better about yourself and mankind.

He recently hosted a “soul food luncheon” in his offices that was so packed with friends and colleagues you couldn’t move. But he could. He eased through the crowd that seemed to part for him like the Red Sea, everyone grabbing his hand, pulling him for a hug, posing for countless pictures. People want to be around him. Coworkers can’t get enough. Former law clerks return like Capistrano’s swallows.

And if I am gushing here – and if every time you read something about Damon Keith it is gushing – well, that is fair and that is accurate and there is a reason, I believe.

We have all been judged. We are judged every day. Our parents judged us, our teachers judged us, our bosses judge us, society judges us. It is a constant feeling, a constant worry, a dynamic of life that we often wish would go away or, at the very least, be more fair.

Damon Keith comes across as fair. Not bitter. Not vengeful. Not trying to make you the receptacle of whatever injustices he has endured. He sees you eye to eye, and he leaves you looking up at him. You can be human around him as you feel he is being human around you.

What higher praise can we give a judge?

These book excerpts offer a piece of the man. They tell a story, give history to his journey. But mostly they shed light on the light that burns daily inside that massive building on Lafayette, another treasure of Detroit, glowing quietly.

Contact Mitch Albom: at malbom@freepress.com or at 313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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