All superheroes don’t wear capes. Some of them wear black robes and fight for ‘equal justice under law’ for all human beings. Such is the case for pioneering Federal Judge, Damon Keith, who recently passed away leaving behind a legacy of bravery, perseverance, and honorable service to uphold, and at times challenge, the law in the United States.
Born in 1922, Judge Keith was the grandson of slaves. He went on to attend West Virginia State College, an HBCU in Charleston, West Virginia which you may also know as the alma mater of ‘Hidden Figure’ Katherine Johnson. After earning his bachelors degree in 1943, he went on to serve in the United States military during World War II. When he returned to the states after his tour of service in Europe, his return home was plagued with intense racism and discrimination.
His jarring experience of the Jim Crow era inspired him to study law. He enrolled in Howard University’s School of Law under the tutelage of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In a previous interview with The Detroit News in 2017, Judge Keith reflected on words of wisdom that Marshall shared with his class: “He told us at Howard’s law school that ‘equal justice under law,’ those four words etched in the Supreme Court, were written by white men, and when you leave this law school as lawyers, make the country live up to it.”
Judge Keith did just that. After completing his law degree in 1949 he went on to build a career in law that spanned five decades, 10 U.S. presidents, and tackled pivotal issues including school desegregation, immigrant discrimination and deportation matters, and groundbreaking parameters around the use of wiretapping as a means to obtain information from defendants in court cases.
Keith received numerous death threats throughout his career yet he stood firmly on his beliefs and understanding of the law to call for the most transparent and fair proceedings that could be executed in his court room.
“While Judge Keith will be rightfully remembered by this nation for his gracious servant leadership and his landmark civil rights contributions, there are so many memories and lessons that he taught me purely in his capacity as my ‘Uncle Damon’ that I will treasure immensely,” Keith’s niece Erin Keith shared with Because of Them We Can.
Judge Keith inspired Erin to become a lawyer. When it was time for her to be sworn in, Keith was there to perform the ceremony.
“The day he swore me in as an attorney was truly one of happiest days of my life— an opportunity for me to actually tell him how much he inspired me on my own legal journey as a social justice advocate. “
Erin shared one of the lessons he always taught others was that of gratitude and kindness.
“He’d often remark, ‘The worse thing you can ever be is an ingrate. When someone helps you along the way, you say thank you, and then you help someone else’.”
For the countless people you helped through your pioneering work to the legacy of advocates inspired to pick up where you left off, thank you Judge Keith for a job well done.