Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Crusader For Justice

Senior Sixth Circuit Judge Damon Keith is described by his biographers as a Crusader For Justice. Compiled, written, and edited by Hammer and Coleman, complete with forward by Mitch Albom, this illuminating 2014 publication reveals the life of a black kid in Detroit who got a break and made good use of his life. The authors tell the very readable story of a black Baptist kid growing up on the other side of Michigan from me--in Detroit. He was not that much different from me except for his skin color, and not at all unlike another Detroit product almost my same age, who I would meet as an adult and learn to love, esteem, and value so very highly--James Earl Massey, a man who occupied the pulpit as well as the judge ruled the bench.

Combining my roots in West Michigan with my interest in civil rights issues and biographies, I re-visited early scenes from my life as I read this scintillating book. It proved quite revealing about someone I should have heard of but of whom I was totally ignorant – Federal Judge Damon J. Keith. It delights me that this young man could benefit from a family break and end up going to an all-black college in West Virginia where his uncle-by-marriage was the President.

Damon Keith eventually achieved his dream, having a law degree in one hand and a mop handle in the other hand--a janitor in downtown Detroit. That was what black people did in those days-menial labor; they didn’t sit in the seat of the judges. Later, he founded his own legal firm, was eventually elevated to the U. S. District Court of Eastern Michigan, and finally nominated by President Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati.

I was out of state in 1967 and remembered little of the Detroit race riots of that year, but I know that was also the year another friend would experience he LA race riots—BIG BEN; Dr. Benjamin Reid, a former Detroit Pastor. However, I did remember the 1943 riots in Detroit when fellow white students serving in our local West Michigan National Guard were called to active duty in Detroit to quell the rioting.

This well-written book describes the life of a member of the Federal Judiciary who has been a courageous defender of constitutional rights and bringing real meaning to the promise of “equal justice under law.” I found “the Judge” a highly-honorable and admirable man, a Christian brother of Baptist faith and a man whose first act upon losing his wife was to drop to his knees and thank his Heavenly Father for fifty-four years of marriage with Dr. Rachel Boone Keith, M.D. (daughter of Liberian missionaries).

Growing up with a Michigan heritage and living in the segregated south in my young adult years, I readily understood how the Judge helped improve civil rights legislation in Michigan, while helping protect citizen’s rights in cases that went all the way to the White House, as happened in the “Keith Case” involving former President Richard Nixon. 

The following incident taken from the book captured for me “an answer” to a question still widely debated yby some. It is an issue that I view as still systemic in our culture, an infescting virus to this day. This incident describes an on-the-street encounter in Williamsburg, Virginia. Two federal judges, one white and one black, standing in front of their Conference center, where they and 350 other judges are commemorating the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution. They are waiting to go to lunch.

The Confrence membership is prestigious. Damon Keith is the only African American among the group, but he is the presiding judge, following his appointment by Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist. Part of their task has been the commissioning of three-hundred bronze “Bill of Rights” plaques, to be placed strategically in significant buildings around the country.

As Judge Keith and Judge Frank Altimari of the Second Circuit Court stand on the street waiting to go to lunch, a car pulls up and a hotel guest steps out of his car. This middle-aged man in a business suit assumes the shorter of the two men standing nearby on the sidewalk—the black man—is a porter. He tosses his keys to Judge Keith barking “Here, boy, park this car!”

It is a scene I have seen repeated in many versions, many times. Had that happened to me, I would probably have flung his keys into the middle of the street. Yet, when Judge Altimari rushed at the offender screaming, he was stopped by the strong arm of Judge Keith, who said, “Whom the Devil would destroy, he first makes angry.”

From Warner’s World, this is walkingwithwarner.blogspot.com 
… standing or kneeling at the foot of the cross this Easter 2014, I occupy level ground. In Christ, no man exists as my superior and no man exists as my inferior, but beside whom I am ever so blessed and happy to stand-or-kneel with shoulder to shoulder. men. 

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