Damon J. Keith: A Judicial Titan for Racial and Social Equality

 Editor’s Note: Tina M. Patterson, a Detroit native and attorney is the president and director of research at The PuLSE Institute. She was previously a federal government attorney with the Social Security Administration. During her stint at the Social Security Administration, she wrote legally binding decisions for administrative law judges throughout the United States and Puerto Rico.  She advised judges on legal sufficiency and analysis of social security regulations as well as applied specific federal circuit precedent to cases. For submission inquiries contact the Institute’s editor-in-chief Bankole Thompson at info@thepulseinstitute.org

By Tina M. Patterson

Martin Luther King, Jr. Nelson Mandela. Rosa Parks. Muhammad Ali.

These legendary icons of Black History are synonymous with our thoughts about freedom, justice, and equality- the fundamental values that exemplify the American spirit and the global essence of humanity.

Likewise, we admire and praise these legends for their bold and daring, yet peaceful and calm stands against injustice, often at the hands of their own governments, and we revere them for demanding the respect and basic dignity deserved to them and mandated by a free society.

These extraordinary individuals displayed immense courage during dangerous and life-threatening events, but never wavered to the pressure to concede their positions. Even when they were punished and imprisoned for their actions, their bravery and unflinching moral fortitude never allowed them to forget why they fought and who they fought for, leaving them with no regrets.

In an era when blacks were legally subjected to second class citizenship within their own countries, each of these remarkable individuals were no exception and faced the related consequences. Rosa Parks was jailed for not giving up her seat. Ali was stripped of the prime of his career. Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island. And Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at age 39.

The penalties were enormous. No one would have blamed them if they had succumbed to the pressures of their oppressors. Yet the very reason we celebrate these individuals and what makes them so remarkable is precisely because they did not give up. They courageously stood up to the injustices they encountered, even in the face of danger. Each of them understood that they were fighting a fight not only for themselves, but for their peers and every generation that would follow. They understood the weight of history, the power of their voices, and the platforms they possessed that would enable them to amplify their messages. And they were not afraid to use them because justice dictated the suppression of fear.

One additional name stands shoulder to shoulder with those remarkable individuals and now joins them in the sacred and eternal ancestral plane: Judge Damon Jerome Keith.

In his lifetime, Judge Keith, a son of Detroit and grandson of slaves, was no stranger to the injustices faced by blacks in the United States, even within its own armed forces. A WWII Army Veteran, Judge Keith vividly recalled the hard-nosed segregation policy enforced by the Army, which afforded white prisoners of war superior treatment to black soldiers and subjected blacks to lowly and menial tasks within the ranks. It was this disparate treatment that led Judge Keith to seek a path toward equality and strengthened his resolve to transform the deeply seated racial inequities in America that he experienced firsthand.

He chose a career in law as his vehicle to drive change, attending Howard University School of Law, a Historic and preeminent black institution of higher learning, where he was mentored by none other than Justice Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel to the NAACP. Howard Law School, under the tutelage of fellow black legal luminary Charles Hamilton Houston, intentionally cultivated the philosophy that lawyers and judges should purposefully effect social change through vigorous pursuit of equality among the races under the law. Judge Keith’s career on the bench serves as an embodiment and a testament to that very ideal.

Some of his most notable cases afforded him the direct ability to distribute equality and fair and unbiased opportunity where they had previously been denied.

When it comes to equality, fair housing and quality public education are basic quality of life issues that are relevant and necessary due to the standard economic security they generate for citizens of all income brackets. Yet these fundamental necessities have historically been denied to Blacks and other marginalized populations. When the opportunity to remedy these inequalities arrived, Judge Keith did not hesitate to act.

He ordered the Pontiac Public School District to integrate its school busing system in the 1970 Davis v School District of City of Pontiac decision, thereby providing black students with an equal educational opportunity already enjoyed by their white peers. He unveiled the housing discrimination against blacks disguised as urban renewal in the 1971 Garrett v City of Hamtramck decision, a ruling that required the city to build new public housing with ramifications remaining to this day.

Judge Keith issued a critical decision to level the economic playing field for blacks in his 1973 Stamps v Detroit Edison ruling that required the company to pay $4 million to black employees and end its previous hiring discrimination against blacks by implementing an affirmative action program.

And following Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young’s historic 1974 election based on his prominent campaign promise to eliminate STRESS, a notorious faction of the Detroit Police Department known to target and harass black citizens, Judge Keith doubled down by ordering the department to apply Mayor Young’s integration plan in the 1979 Baker v City of Detroit decision.

He did not succumb to the denial of equality and justice for black people during his time. On the contrary, he stood boldly against deep animosity toward civil rights and social transformation and forced changed using the moral, independent, and authoritative force of the federal judiciary.

The Baker decision displays Judge Keith’s judicial philosophy precisely. In the ruling, brought by white officers opposed to Mayor Young’s police department integration plan, Judge Keith plainly and courageously opined that:

“The City’s affirmative action program should not be seen as depriving white officers of any right to a promotion. Instead, it should be seen as a program conferring a bonus on blacks that have been subject to past discrimination.”

Rarely can one discover such just and sincere statements supporting the remedy of past discrimination against blacks in any medium, let alone by a sitting judge on the federal bench, in the 1970s nonetheless.

Like many well achieving blacks, Judge Keith could have simply been happy to be where he was, to be content with his own achievements, and to serve out the rest of his life in peace without controversy. But he made a choice to do otherwise, and the world was made better for it.

He understood that his calling to fight against inequality was not only about himself, and that with the platform and the power he possessed, he had the responsibility to inflict his purpose by ensuring the legal maxim of equal justice under law for those to whom it had been historically denied.

While he served as a champion of civil liberties and fair application of the law in all sectors and circumstances, Judge Keith never forgot why it was important to use the full weight of his power and authority to pursue justice at all costs. He was a black man first and foremost. He saw color and experienced discrimination because others saw his color as well. He understood the treatment that comes along with the unjustly stigmatized identity of racial inferiority of blacks and did everything in his power to ensure justice that had been unfairly denied based on such inequitable and inaccurate social expectations. 

Now, in our time of heightened racial tension and growing social inequality, we must follow the guiding conscience of history in taking a stand against these moral wrongs.

No one understood that better than Judge Damon J. Keith. To act otherwise would contradict the body of his work and betray his indelible legacy, and that is an action this country cannot no longer afford to tolerate.

Judge Keith, thank you for shining the light of courage in the face of injustice and showing us that not only is this the right thing to do, but that it is and always will be the necessary thing to do.

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