ZIMBABWE — I was in a hotel room here, minutes away from one of the seven natural wonders of the world, when I got the phone call that Judge Damon Keith had died.
Only hours earlier, I had stood in the glorious spray of Victoria Falls, the largest waterfall on the planet. It took my breath away.
But there are natural wonders, and human wonders, and it is not unfair to put Damon Keith on the latter level. In fact, given that Mother Nature didn’t have to deal with all that Judge Keith did in his 96 years, he might even get the edge. Rarely has a man stood for so much good, for so many others, for so long.
He died Sunday morning. For those who knew him, it was a crushing piece of news. Within hours, there were already long tributes to what Judge Keith did as a lawyer, a district judge and a federal judge, his landmark cases on housing and job discrimination that literally changed the nation, the staredowns of a President (Nixon) and an Attorney General (John Ashcroft), both of which Judge Keith won, not because he was better or stronger, but because he was right, and just, and true.
You can review his many decisions on countless online sites. Watch a fine documentary about his memories. You can read a biography about his early life in Detroit, as the son of a $5-a-day autoworker who told him “I never want to see you have to work in a factory like I do”, and his time in World War II, when black soldiers defended their country and their dignity. You can study his special friendship with Thurgood Marshall, who mentored Keith and famously called in a huff after Keith was considering foregoing a federal bench appointment to continue his important district court work in our area.
“Don’t be crazy, Damon … if this job is offered to you, you take it!” Marshall screamed. “You hear me?”
And he hung up.
Judge Keith took the job. And made history. Even as late as three years ago, when he was in his early 90s, he was still fighting what he perceived as injustice, writing a scorching dissent on an Ohio case about restricting early and absentee voting. He accused his colleagues of ignoring African-American voters and those who died in the long battle for voting rights.
The written word on Judge Keith is vast, deep and well-chronicled, befitting a legal icon. But those who knew him personally can tell you something else.
I was lucky.
I was one of them.
So I can tell you the sheer pleasure of going to the Judge’s chambers on the second floor of the Federal Building on Lafayette Street, and getting to sit at his long wooden table for hours. And accompanying him on drives and appearances. And sitting by him amidst swarms of guests at his annual Soul Food Luncheon, as he grasped my shoulder and said “Hey! Have you met my doctor?”
For a man of such legal gravitas, he was as playful as a childhood friend, had a winking sense of humor, and an incredible way of batting back any compliments to the person who was offering them. He was the definition of hail-fellow-well-met, which is all the more remarkable because many people, over the years, hated him.
Not him personally. No one could hate Damon Keith. Even the lawyers who came before him knowing they were going against his track record were still treated with dignity, fairness and respect. Judge Keith insisted on it, because he had felt the other side.
He never forgot having to pick up the scraps from white lawyers, when the color of his skin denied him the chance to argue more weighty cases. He remembered having to work as a janitor at the Detroit News while he studied for his bar exam, and being told by a white newsman who saw him reading a law book in the bathroom, “A black lawyer? Better keep mopping.”
No one was treated badly by Judge Keith, because instead of saying “I will repay hate with hate,” he said, “the hate stops with me.” He almost never used that word, by the way, hate. He saw it as poison.
But others used it on him. When he made controversial decisions on busing to fight the educational imbalance of racism, buses were firebombed and his life was threatened. When he made decisions on housing discrimination in Hamtramck, he was vilified and told to leave things alone, this was the way it always worked, mind your damn business.
He felt hate, but he wouldn’t traffic in it. He’d seen enough of that, as a grandson of slaves, as a witness to both the 1942 and 1967 race riots in Detroit, as a college student who had to switch to the “colored car” on the train down to school in West Virginia, even as a respected federal judge, nearly 70 years old, who came out of a hotel conference on the Constitution’s bicentennial and was told by a white man who drove up to the hotel entrance, “Boy, park my car.”
If that won’t make you hate, nothing will.
But to be with Damon Keith was love, and kindness, and curiosity about how you were doing. He would give you a peck on the cheek, hold your hand while you spoke, he made you feel like he had cleared his entire schedule just to have five minutes of small talk with you, and maybe share a story he had shared 10 times already.
Ask any one of his seemingly countless former law clerks, from the famous names like Jennifer Granholm and Lani Guinier, to the scores of lesser-known but equally devoted lawyers and judges and advocates who called him and wrote him and thanked him every time they made contact, thanked him for being such an inspiration and mentor. Damon Keith gave women and young people of color chances when they weren’t getting chances, he gave guidance when there was no one else offering it. He often said, “You’re walking floors you didn’t scrub and going through doors you didn’t open. You need to scrub floors and open them for those who come after you.”
He ought to know. He literally scrubbed floors. And opened doors. And, perhaps most remarkably, was never bitter.
I used to ask him about his World War II military service, in the segregated Army, where his battalion was 200 black soldiers and four white officers. In the quartermasters corps, he drove a medical truck collecting wounded soldiers. One winter, in France, two of the wounded died en route, and Damon Keith had to stop, dig their graves and bury them in the ground, two fallen white soldiers being buried by a black man who wasn’t allowed to fight alongside them. He thought about that scene many times over the years. It was the kind of thing he spoke to God about.
And he did speak to God. Or at least pray to him. Every day. His desk always had an open Bible on it, and sometimes when we visited he would start by saying, “You know, I was just reading this in Psalms …”
Memory will live on
I don’t know what they’ll do with Judge Keith’s office. It is a landmark. Everyone talks about it. There are countless pictures lining the hallways, of the Judge with virtually every major name you can think of in the second half of the 20th century. Presidents. Entertainers. Sports figures. The New York Times, in their online obituary, used a photo of Judge Keith sitting next to Oprah Winfrey at Rosa Parks’ funeral. Talk about connected.
And, yes, he was dear friends with Rosa Parks, and protected her over the years, and drove her out to the airport to meet Nelson Mandela in 1990. Mandela is a name worth mentioning, because just days ago, I was in Johannesburg, South Africa, at the famed Apartheid Museum, and the injustices you see that were done to black Africans, and the patient but victorious battle waged by Mandela, is not dissimilar to the degradation black Americans suffered over the years in our country, and the patient fight Damon Keith waged to right those wrongs.
Mandela inspired from a prison cell.
Damon Keith did it behind a bench.
All told, he put in nearly 70 years in the legal profession, more than 50 of those as a judge. President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District. Jimmy Carter put him on the federal appeals court. In another political world, it is quite likely Damon Keith would have made it to the Supreme Court.
But he didn’t need a Supreme robe to be effective. The Times called him, “a fountainhead of regional rulings with national implications.” He would have liked that. And it’s true. The decisions he handed down right here in Detroit, on workplace discrimination, police forces, housing and education, undeniably changed the path of civil rights in this country.
And the decisions he made on presidential abuses of power protected the rights of us all.
One in a lifetime
And yet I will end this by telling you he never spoke more passionately about any subject than when talking about his wife. Her maiden name was Rachel Boone, a brilliant doctor, and whenever he recalled a conversation between them, it was always, “Now, darling, I want you to be sure …” or “Darling, I’m calling to say good night …”
They were married for more than 50 years, and he acted like a smitten teenager the entire time. He could still remember what meal he was telling her about the last night of her life, and the call he got in chambers with the news of her death. Not once in the many times he talked to me about Rachel did he not tear up, and have to dab his eyes with a tissue.
Damon Keith knew love.
And he gave it, right to the end. He is survived by his three daughters and two granddaughters, of which he was eminently proud. But his extended “family” was much larger than that. He was a like a boulder thrown into still waters: the ripples of his existence went a long ways, and the amount of people who will pay tribute in the coming days may stun you.
Not me. I was lucky enough to call him a friend, and blessed to be able to work with him, eat with him, laugh with him, and take his hand in mine. He used to talk about different jobs I had and exclaim in that high-pitched voice, “Mitch, I don’t know how you do it!” But of course, that’s the sentence meant for him. And it is heartbreaking to think we won’t get to see him do it anymore.
Tomorrow, if I want, I could go see a natural wonder of the world a second time. But the wonder of the world that was Damon Keith has finally left us, to approach a higher bench. We will not see his likes again.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.