Judge Damon J. Keith celebrates 96th birthday on July 4

- As our country celebrated its 242nd birthday this Independence Day, a Detroit legend celebrated his 96th birthday. 

Born on July 4, 1922, Judge Damon Keith is the grandson of slaves and the son of a Ford factory worker who made $5 a day. After graduating from Northwestern High School, he became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. 

Since then, he's gone on to serve as a federal judge for more than 50 years. 

But, before then, the world was at war. He enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, which was a segregated Army that treated White German prisoners of war with more respect than the Black men who wore the American uniform. 

"I wanted to make life better for all people, and I thought the law was an area which I could make a contribution," he says. 

He returned from the fight overseas vowing to fight for civil rights here at home. He graduated from Harvard Law School and returned home to start his career in Detroit -- where he was forced to work as a janitor, mopping the bathrooms of The Detroit News while he studied for the Bar. 

"A White reporter over there saw me and said, 'What are you doing, boy?' And I said I'm reading Ballentine, studying for the Bar to be a lawyer. And he says, 'A black lawyer?' And I said yes. And he said, 'Well keep on mopping.'"

Not only did he pass the Bar, he founded one of the first Black law firms in the city. And by 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Keith to the federal bench, leading to a string of historic cases. 

In 1970, he ordered the city-wide busing in Pontiac to help integrate the schools there -- despite resistance from parents and even death threats. 

Less than a year later he defied then President Richard Nixon, ruling the White House could not tap American citizens without a warrant. 

And after his promotion to the Appellate Court, he laid down the law to yet another president, telling George W. Bush he could not conduct secret deportation hearings in private. 

But Damon Keith should not just be honored for what he's done on the bench, but also for what he's done as a man. He became the surrogate father and guardian for Willie Horton, guiding the young athlete from a troubled neighborhoor to manhood and stardom with the Detroit Tigers.

And it was Damon Keith who came to the rescue of Rosa Parks in 1994, helping the Civil Rights icon find a safe place to live after she'd been attacked by a burglar in her Detroit home. 

Today, his office is a profile in history, a tribute to his late wife, Rachel, and to all the people he's known, touched and inspired. Presidents, prime ministers, celebrities and children. 

The biggest lesson of his life? 

"That one person can make a difference. Number one, you've got to have integrity. And try to be unselfish. I've tried to make a life of helping other people."

Despite his achievements, he's never forgotten where he came from or who he is. A proud Detroiter and a proud American.

Up Next:


  • Popular

  • Recent

Stories you may be interested in - includes Advertiser Stories