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Civil Rights Champion Uses Law to Fight Racism

Long before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the federal bench, Judge Damon J. Keith was a fervent champion of equal justice under the law.

While attending Howard Law School, Keith befriended future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Keith then joined a Detroit law firm that specialized in defending African-American clients.

A new U.S. Courts Moments in History video, released in celebration of Black History Month, recounts Keith’s storied career as a federal judge, including how he persevered in the face of racism throughout his life. Appointed in 1967 to the Eastern District of Michigan, Keith oversaw divisive cases involving school busing in Pontiac, Michigan, and controversial urban renewal projects.

A year before the Watergate burglary, Keith rejected the use of warrantless wiretapping, ordering President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, to release telephone transcripts.

In 2002, while serving on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Keith opposed the George W. Bush administration’s use of closed deportation hearings. “Democracies die behind closed doors,” he wrote.

The video also features interviews with former law clerks mentored by Keith, including U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright, a former Minnesota state Supreme Court justice.

Watch more videos in the Moments in History series

Related Topics: Judicial History