WVSU hall to bear Judge Keith's name

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Judge Damon J. Keith, who worked his way through college by mopping floors and waiting tables, is pictured during a luncheon last fall to mark the release of his biography, “Crusader for Justice.” 

Photo by Robert Chase

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

As a freshman at West Virginia State University in 1939, Damon Keith could never have imagined what will take place Wednesday, Aug. 13 at his alma mater in Institute, W.V.

Next week, the distinguished federal jurist will be in the spotlight when the "Judge Damon J. Keith Scholars Hall" is dedicated during a special ceremony on the WVSU campus. It will mark the opening of the new 291-bed, suite-style residence hall bearing the name of the longtime U.S. Court of Appeals judge. The $30 million facility is reportedly the first new dormitory built on the campus in nearly 45 years.

Keith was just 17 when he first set foot on the West Virginia State campus after graduating from Northwestern High School in Detroit. It was an "emotional" experience for the son of a Detroit autoworker.

"I was the first in my family to attend college and I literally cried at the thought of having such an opportunity to pursue a college education," said Keith, who had never left Michigan before heading to the Mountaineer state. "It was the time of the Great Depression, and I came from a family background of limited financial means. The chance to go to college was a true privilege, especially during a time when so many people across the country were suffering."

Now, little more than a month after celebrating his 92nd birthday, Judge Keith will be joined for the special occasion by his three daughters, Gilda Keith, Debbie Keith, and Cecile Keith Brown; his son-in-law, Daryle Brown; and his Administrative Manager Kim Kendrick. It will be the first time his children have visited the WVSU campus and will rekindle memories of another first time visit.

"My dad, who was very sick at the time, came down to see me graduate from West Virginia State in 1943," Keith recalled. "It was the first time he was able to visit and I can remember him telling me as we walked around campus, 'Son, God was good to allow me the chance to see you graduate.' A few days later after I returned to Detroit, my father died, but he passed away knowing that his son had graduated."

He would be even more delighted to know that his son has since earned law degrees from Howard University (J.D. 1949) and Wayne State University (LL.M. 1956), as well as more than 40 honorary degrees from such institutes of higher learning as Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Michigan, Morehouse College, Spelman College, Colgate University, and the College of William and Mary.

A judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit since 1977, Keith was first appointed to the federal bench in 1967 when he was named to the U.S. District Court in Detroit by then President Lyndon Johnson.

He has been a staunch defender of constitutional rights and civil liberties, and has been involved in a series of landmark cases, including United States v. Sinclair, commonly known as the "Keith decision," in which he found that the federal government had no power to wiretap any individual without a warrant. His ruling in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft also drew national attention when he wrote that "Democracies die behind closed doors," a statement that continues to echo in the wake of any constitutional infringement.

In 2011, the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State Law School opened its doors. The facility was made possible by the generosity of a host of donors, including his good friend and philanthropist A. Alfred Taubman, who contributed more than $3 million for the project.

"I have been greatly blessed by God, whose hand has guided me every step of the way in my life," said Keith. "When I reflect on having buildings named after me, it is truly providential. I could never have dreamed of this, and it is a reminder of the importance of gratefulness and humility."

Published: Wed, Aug 06, 2014

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