'Walk with Me'

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Film depicts life, times of trailblazing jurist Damon Keith

By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Judge Damon J. Keith went to the movies on Wednesday, June 17.

With some 2,000 of his closest friends.

The occasion was the premiere of the 90-minute documentary, “Walk with Me: The Trials of Judge Damon J. Keith” at the Max M. Fisher Music Center in Detroit. Directed by Jesse Nesser and sponsored by Ford and the DTE Energy Foundation, the film offers a riveting look at Keith’s life through a series of his landmark rulings, principally as a judge on the U.S. District Court bench in the Eastern District of Michigan.

The premiere, which was preceded by a VIP reception, drew the likes of former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and best-selling author Mitch Albom, who served as executive producer of the film. Albom, who wrote the foreword to the Keith biography, “Crusader for Justice,” is Nesser’s uncle, and following the film led a panel discussion with his nephew and the federal jurist.

The June 17 showing at the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was a “first” for the guest of honor, who was appointed to the U.S. District Court in 1967 by then President Lyndon B. Johnson, 10 years later accepting an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

“I had not seen the film before that night,” Keith acknowledged. “It was a first for me, and I have to admit that I was overcome by emotion during various parts of the film, particularly that about my wife (Rachel). She meant everything to me and her loss will forever sadden me.”

The film was shot at various locations around his beloved Detroit, as well as in Washington, Cincinnati, and the family farm near Richmond, Va. It traces his legal journey from a Howard University law school grad in 1949 to an up-and-coming lawyer in his hometown of Detroit, where eight years later he would join with Herman Anderson, Nathan Conyers, Myron Wahls, and Joseph Brown to form their own firm.

“They labeled me ‘The Rainmaker,’ since it was my principal role to bring in business and develop our client base,” Keith related.

Over the years, his work in court and in the community, most notably with the local chapter of the NAACP, elevated his legal profile to the degree where he earned an appointment to the federal bench in 1967, the same year that Detroit would erupt in flames during summer rioting that claimed the lives of 43.

As the film depicts, among his early judicial challenges as a federal judge was the Pontiac busing case in 1969, when a group of black parents sued the Pontiac school system, charging that it promoted racial segregation and discrimination. The case would grab national headlines over the next few years as Keith ruled that Pontiac had violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection and due process clauses, ordering busing as a judicial remedy.

The outcry was long and loud, and was punctuated by the August 1971 bombing of 10 Pontiac school buses by members of the Ku Klux Klan.

The decision by Keith, which was upheld on appeal, became a lightning rod in George Wallace’s 1972 presidential campaign. It came during a time when Keith was dealing with a housing discrimination case in Hamtramck, a ruling also traced in poignant terms during the film. The 1971 case still reverberates today, some 40 years after Keith ruled that the city of Hamtramck practiced “Negro removal” under the guise of urban renewal and ordered the city to build affordable new housing for displaced residents.

“It was a clear case of discrimination against blacks living in Hamtramck at the time,” Keith said, noting that it was tied to the construction of I-75 at the time. “It was systematic removal without any plans to ever relocate them to another section of the city.”

It would take until 2010 before the first semblance of housing remedies would take place, according to Keith. On September 10 of that year, a special ceremony was held in Hamtramck to mark the launch of a $50 million housing development on city owned lots, effectively bringing to an end the nation’s longest-standing housing discrimination court case.

The documentary, which drew a rousing standing ovation at its end, also focused on the Detroit Police affirmative action case and a 1971 class-action discrimination suit against Detroit Edison, which ironically lost in court decades ago but 44 years later helped sponsor the Keith film.

“Their (DTE Energy) involvement is somewhat fitting, considering what happened,” Keith reflected.

For a man who has devoted his life to civil rights crusades and to righting social injustice, Keith just as ironically was in the spotlight on a night when a senseless tragedy was playing out at a historic church in Charleston, S.C.

There, following a prayer service, nine black churchgoers were killed by a white gunman, who reportedly spouted racist sentiments during the rampage.

“As a nation, we have come far, but obviously not far enough,” Keith said in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting.

“In the minds of some, perhaps many, racism is still deeply rooted, and I continue to pray that such hatred and accompanying acts of violence will someday come to an end.”
 

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