One Year Later: How Federal Judge Damon Keith Inspired Business Leader Pasky


The consequential legacy of the late Damon J. Keith, who served as Senior Judge of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, will be felt for generations to come. Whether it was his decisions that reined in the presidency, upheld civil rights laws or ban discrimination in corporate America, Keith, who died last  year on April 28, will be remembered as one of the most important and impactful figures to sit at the pinnacle of American jurisprudence. His legal maxim, “Democracies die behind closed doors,” will forever be etched on our body politic.

It’s been one year since Judge Keith passed away. The PuLSE Institute, Detroit’s independent and non-partisan anti-poverty think tank, is looking at his life through a prism of diverse perspectives that underscore the need for social change. Though he was a giant on the streets of justice and inspired social justice and anti-poverty advocates, Judge Keith, also commanded the utmost respect in corporate boardrooms.

Cynthia J. Pasky, the president and CEO of Strategic Staffing Solutions,  a global IT consulting and business services corporation headquartered in Detroit, developed a very close relationship with Judge Keith over the years that included traveling together. In this Q&A interview with journalist Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute, Pasky expounds on Judge Keith’s impact through their relationship, how it inspired her as well as lessons for other business leaders.  

PULSE: You knew Judge Damon Keith personally as a friend. What drew you to him? 

CYNTHIA PASKY: My first introduction to Judge Keith was through my very dear friend Sam Logan, the former legendary newspaper publisher. Judge Keith was at once a giant in Detroit and in our country’s judicial system, and a person unaffected by his stature. He carried the weight of some of this country’s most controversial rulings on his shoulders but was a compassionate man. He lived his life to serve others. 

PULSE:  What kind of person was he outside the stature of a legal giant? 

CYNTHIA PASKY: Judge Keith was true to his faith and was first and foremost an advocate and tireless fighter. He was devoted to his family and friends, and to Detroit, and he used his position for the betterment of countless people around the country. He was a genuine soul.  

PULSE: Judge Keith was also a complex figure given his biography, and what he went through in life. Did you find your relationship with him challenging? 

CYNTHIA PASKY: Not at all. We shared some things in common that tend to shape a person’s life. Neither of us came from wealthy or privileged backgrounds and had to work — very hard — to achieve our goals. We also shared many beliefs: that every person, no matter their background or color, has value, and should have equal access to the opportunities our freedom affords us. Finally, we found that we also shared the same view of many people and their actions, which made for interesting and delightful conversations. 

From Left: Mich. Supreme Court Justice Otis M. Smith, Damon J. Keith, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin, 1965. (WSU Press)

PULSE: What do you remember him most for? 

CYNTHIA PASKY: Judge Keith never, ever stopped. He never ceased working, advocating, and building a better Detroit. He had an unshakable faith.

PULSE: Are there any life-changing experiences you remember in your interaction with him over the years?   

CYNTHIA PASKY: There are several experiences: Accompanying Sam Logan when he was honored at the Judge’s Soul Food Lunch, and watching the S3 Team when he spoke at S3’s Annual Meeting, are just two examples. Every meeting, lunch, or dinner we had over the years was an opportunity to learn. 

PULSE: You invested in his book, “Crusader for Justice,” the final testament of his life. Why? 

CYNTHIA PASKY: Judge Keith’s story is simply worth telling for generations. There are many lessons throughout his legacy, primary among them being social justice, which should be everyone’s responsibility. Our freedom comes with great responsibility to ensure that our rights and opportunities extend to everyone in this country regardless of race, religion or beliefs. 

PULSE: As a Detroit business leader, what is the central challenge that you take away from his book?   

CYNTHIA PASKY: Business leaders have an obligation to the communities where they live and work. They cannot simply extract revenue and not invest something back into the people and organizations that contribute to the betterment of all.  Business leaders should also always remember that diversity is not a box to be checked and it is not about quotas. It is about leadership creating opportunities, removing barriers, and doing what my grandfather once said that, when you meet a person, see their soul first before anything else.

PULSE: He waxed on corporate social responsibility a lot. Why do think business leaders believed in him? 

CYNTHIA PASKY: Business leaders believed his message because of his genuine concern for our city and the manner in which he delivered it. His beliefs were inarguable. For all of his accomplishments, Judge Keith was an approachable, engaging man who inspired us to do better and be better, and he always led by example.

PULSE: What were some of the distinctive qualities about him that stood out in his engagement with the Detroit corporate community? 

CYNTHIA PASKY: Surely his early life and upbringing had a lot to do with it, but Judge Keith was also a born leader who was able to draw people in and listen to what he had to say. The country is a better place under his watch, but Detroiters are truly fortunate to have counted him among us. 

PULSE: Judge Keith offered his chambers as a venue for meetings important to the progress of Detroit including saving the Charles Wright Museum of African American History. What should people know about some of the meetings you attended?   

CYNTHIA PASKY: Judge Keith was a champion for Detroit and moved it forward in ways that few people know. When he invited people into his chambers for meetings, he had already decided what the outcome should be, and then helped those attending to find the correct path to making a difference.

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