Enduring Spirit: Ford dealership chairman saluted at judge's annual 'Soul Food' event


– Photos by John Meiu

PHOTO #1: Walter E. Douglas Sr., chairman of Avis Ford in Southfield, was in the spotlight recently as the 2015 recipient of the Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award, an honor presented annually at Judge Damon J. Keith’s Soul Food Luncheon. Flanked by Judge Keith (left) and program emcee Melvin “Butch” Hollowell, Douglas was praised for his community activism and charitable work.

PHOTO #2: Several representatives from the Knight Foundation, which contributed $30 million to the “Grand Bargain” in Detroit, posed for a photo with U.S. District Chief Judge Gerald Rosen and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith.  Pictured are (left to right) Shazna Nessa, director of journalism; Katy Locker, program director; Chief Judge Rosen; Judge Keith; and Jennifer Preston, vice president of journalism for the Knight Foundation.

PHOTO #3: Among those on hand for the luncheon were (left to right) attorney Rasul Raheem, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Edward Ewell Jr., U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts, and attorney Reginald Turner.

PHOTO #4: U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Eric L. Clay was among the featured speakers at the luncheon. A former law clerk to Judge Keith, Clay paid tribute to past winners of the Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award while also introducing fellow law clerks in attendance.

By Tom Kirvan

Legal News

A man who recognized the importance of "seizing the opportunity" in his life and his automotive career was the recipient of the "Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award" at the 28th annual Soul Food Luncheon February 12 in Detroit.

Walter E. Douglas Sr., chairman and majority stockholder of Avis Ford in Southfield, was this year's honoree, earning special praise from the founder of the Soul Food event, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith.

"Walt has been an activist in the finest sense of the word, and has freely given of his time and talents to many charitable and civic causes in the Detroit area," said Keith. "His willingness to lead and to help out are just part of how his success is measured."

Douglas, former chair of The Auto Club Group, the 9 million-member Michigan based affiliate of AAA, was the third president of New Detroit, the nation's first urban coalition. He served the organization for more than 13 years before beginning his auto dealership career. In his acceptance speech, Douglas recognized pioneers in the African American community who were "trailblazers" in the pursuit of equality, thanking those who "seized an opportunity to make our world more inclusive."

He joins an impressive list of previous winners that includes the likes of Rosa Parks, Coleman Young, Dr. Benjamin Carson, Dennis Archer, Joe Dumars, Dave Bing, Conrad Mallett Jr., Aretha Franklin, Congressman John Conyers Jr., Faye Nelson, Carol Goss, and 2014 honoree Juanita Moore.

The annual luncheon was launched in 1988 to honor exceptional black men and women, many of whom have placed particular value on the importance of community service throughout their professional careers, according to Keith. The event, traditionally held during Black History Month, attracted hundreds of federal, state, and local dignitaries to the United States Courthouse in Detroit for the invitation-only event. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Edsel Ford II were among the VIPs in attendance.

"This is an event that started out as a very small gathering and has just mushroomed over the years," said Keith, who has been recovering from a nasty bout with shingles. "It is an opportunity to pay tribute to a black man or woman from the Detroit area who has achieved greatness and can serve as a role model for others in the black community."

Douglas, who published his autobiography "The Activist Entrepreneur" in 2013, has served for years on various corporate boards, including the Henry Ford Health System and Health Alliance Plan; the Tiger Woods Foundation; the Oakland University Foundation; the Wayne State University Foundation; the Skillman Foundation; and the foundation for his alma mater, North Carolina Central University. He currently serves on the board of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. He and his wife, Reha, have three children.

Gerald Rosen, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, was among the speakers at the luncheon, which featured a menu of fried chicken, black-eyed peas, corn bread, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and other soul food delicacies. The chief judge praised Keith for his lifetime commitment to the common good, labeling the 92-year-old jurist an icon, a legend, a mentor, and an inspiration. And with a nod to his late father, Rosen added another term to describe Keith "mensch." In Yiddish, said Rosen, the term befits a man of "integrity and honor" and is the "highest" of compliments.

Rosen, one of the principal architects of the so-called "Grand Bargain" that emerged from the Detroit bankruptcy proceedings, pulled double duty at the lunch, subbing for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who recently was hospitalized with a blood clot following an Achilles tendon injury. In the Governor's absence, Rosen read a letter addressed to Keith from Snyder, which said in part:

"This is the first Soul Food Lunch I have missed since becoming governor. I really enjoy the chance to be with you and all your attendees who have done such great work ensuring equality and opportunity for all people. While my mobility is challenged at present, there is nothing wrong with my appetite and I am missing some of the best soul food I have ever tasted!

"I congratulate this year's honoree, Walter Douglas, who personifies a lifetime of selfless humanitarian service and excellence in business," Snyder wrote. "He joins a highly respected group who has been recognized by you over the years."

Snyder also called Keith "an incredible role model to me and to so many people," recognizing his "legacy as a relentless crusader for civil rights."

Keith, in turn, expressed his gratitude for the outpouring of support, reflected in part by the number of his former law clerks who traveled from afar to attend the luncheon. Their "loyalty" and "dedication" serve as daily reminders of their "willingness to do what is right," he proclaimed.


Esteemed federal jurist led distinguished panel

By Sharika Robinson

Judge Damon J. Keith personifies the "American Dream." He rose from humble beginnings to become national chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution, a position to which the Hon. Judge Damon J. Keith headed all federal judges and a committee of jurists who unanimously agreed that only his name would be on every Bill of Rights plaque that would be displayed in federal courthouses across the country and Guam.

Born on July 4, 1922, to parents of modest means, he was taught by his parents the value of education, dedication, and diligence. Perry Keith, Judge Keith's father, encouraged him to attend college. Judge Keith took his father's advice, and in 1943 he graduated from West Virginia State University. After graduating from college, Judge Keith served in the military during World War II. While in the military, Judge Keith was subjected to extreme racism. It was then that Judge Keith established a goal to attend law school to be better equipped to eradicate racism. After hearing of the Houstonian tradition, which teaches that the law is an instrument of social change, Judge Keith decided to attend Howard Law and studied under the mentorship of Charles Hamilton Houston and Justice Thurgood Marshall.

When Judge Keith graduated from law school, he returned to Detroit, which had a primarily white judicial system. There were no black judges, very few black attorneys, and black clients did not hire the few black lawyers in practice. Although his chances of success appeared bleak, Judge Keith studied for and passed the Michigan Bar all while working as a janitor.

Judge Keith did not seek a judicial appointment or judgeship. His sole desire as an attorney and judge is "to do what is right." After years of practice, he was appointed in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Within 10 years, Judge Keith earned the position of Chief Judge of the Eastern District of Michigan. In 1977, he was appointed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter. There, Judge Keith vigorously defended the Constitution and still continues to do so today.

In 1985, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger appointed Judge Keith as Chairman of the Bicentennial of the Constitution Committee for the Sixth Circuit. Due to his excellent leadership skills as chairman of the Sixth Circuit, Judge Keith in 1987 was nominated by Chief Justice William Rehnquist to serve as national chairman of the Judicial Conference Committee on the Bicentennial of the Constitution. As national chairman, Judge Keith sat amongst some of the most prominent jurists in the nation. Included on that committee were Justice Harry A. Blackmun, former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Judges Arthur L. Alarcon, Frank X. Altimari, Adrian G. Duplantier, William Brevard Hand, Patrick F. Kelly, James H. Meredith, Robert C. Murphy, Helen W. Nies, James E. Noland, Jaime Pieras Jr., Delores Korman Sloviter, Kenneth W. Starr, and J. Harvie Wilkinson III, and Justice Edward F. Hennessey. Notably, Judge Keith was the only black man on the committee. Nonetheless, his name is the only name that appears on the plaque.

As we close Black History Month, all, regardless of current circumstances, should be inspired by Judge Keith to live the American Dream!


The author currently serves as a law clerk to Judge Damon J. Keith.

Published: Wed, Feb 25, 2015