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Farewell to Judge Damon Keith

Stephen Henderson  

Judge Damon Keith, someone I thought of as a role model and mentor, and more importantly as a friend, died on Sunday, April 28, at age 96. 

He had such an extraordinary life, with 50 years on the federal bench, that it’s hard to even catalogue the things he changed, the ideas he put forward. He believed in, and fought for, civil rights in every context. And his rulings on everything from racial discrimination to government transparency stand as pillars in the halls of our legal system. 

He believed in fairness and justice. He believed in democracy and opportunity. And he believed in us, Americans of all color, creed, economic station and ethnic origin. He knew we could be good, and true, to one another. He believed that someday, we could be even better. 

For so many of us in Southeast Michigan, though, Judge Keith was also a personal beacon, a guide and shining light who touched us deeply with his never-ending supply of grace and support. He was our personal hero, too, and the loss stings all the more. 

Whenever I saw Judge Keith, he wanted to tell me stories about my grandfather, former UAW official William Beckham Sr., and the way the two of them worked together in the 60s and 70s to build, and then to gird, the opportunities that my generation of Black Detroiters would enjoy. It was his way of pointing out connection with me, but also a way of pushing me along, letting me know that there was destiny and kinship behind his affinity for me, and that there was a powerful foundation for the possibilities that defined my life, especially my life here in Detroit. 

There are so many who would tell the same story about Judge Keith. 

This piece was originally published in WDET.org on April 29, 2019.  

Stephen Henderson is the host for Detroit Public Television and WDET 101.9 FM.  

Secretary Jocelyn Benson  

About 15 years ago I moved to Detroit to clerk for Judge Damon Keith. I knew of him as one of our nation’s most iconic civil rights jurists, a crusader for justice whose decisions prevented the federal government from infringing on individual liberties and helped to battle systemic racism in corporations, municipalities, and schools. 

As his clerk I learned of the gentle giant behind those groundbreaking decisions. 

Judge Keith created a family of law clerks, the vast majority of whom were women and people of color. He shared lessons learned throughout his life and never failed to make an introduction or build a connection that could help further our careers. 

Inspired by his leadership and devotion to Detroit, I stayed in Michigan after my clerkship. I began a career as a voting rights attorney and — due in large part to his encouragement — accepted a position as a professor at Wayne State University Law School.  

When I was asked to serve as dean of Wayne Law, I called Judge Keith for advice. He told me to think about where I could achieve the greatest good for the largest number of people, reminding me of how the law had empowered him and so many other people of color and women to seek a better world. 

Judge Keith instilled in me the principle that “democracies die behind closed doors,” a phrase he coined that is emblazoned over the entrance to the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne Law. 

He reminded me a few months ago when he swore me in to office to continue to follow this guiding light in seeking a fairer and more just society. 

Above all, Judge Keith taught me and all who knew him the importance of living a life in service to others. He lived that principle for 96 years, and we are all better for it. 

Jocelyn Benson is secretary of state for Michigan.