Judge and civil rights icon Damon J. Keith dies at age 96

Posted at 3:03 PM, Apr 28, 2019
and last updated 2019-04-29 14:30:08-04

DETROIT (WXYZ) — "I have a strong feeling that man will never discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."

"I have a strong feeling that man will never discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore."

The Honorable Damon Jerome Keith often quoted that phrase to inspire others.

But he also lived by those words in his dedication to the struggle for equality and justice.

Born in Detroit on the 4th of July in 1922, this grandson of slaves would devote his life to upholding the ideals of freedom and independence.

The graduate of Northwestern High School was drafted into a segregated army during World War II. Damon J. Keith would then come home to launch his own battle against racial discrimination.

In the 1950s, he armed himself with education by going to law school at Howard and Wayne State universities.

In the 1960s, he stood alongside legends in the fight for civil rights.

Fifty years after the Great March to Freedom on Woodward Avenue in 1963, Judge Keith reflected on being part of that historic day in his hometown.

"I don't know what triggered that type of enthusiasm. I wish I could tell you that,” Keith said. “It was just something that exploded, and we were all up and down Woodward marching. I was a young man at that time and I was just thrilled, thrilled to be a part of it because we were fighting for freedom.”

In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Damon Keith to federal district court in Detroit.

A decade later, Jimmy Carter tapped him to serve on the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.

“I've had a good career, God has been good to me and I've had a lot of tough cases, as you know, a lot of controversial cases,” Keith said looking back.

Like the one that blew the Watergate scandal wide open with a decision on wiretapping. Another ruling that ordered busing to integrate Pontiac schools Triggered threats.

"The FBI had an insider in the Ku Klux Klan and they threatened to execute me and my wife and children didn't know that we had protection around our house, but that was a very difficult case,” Keith remembered.

Judge Keith’s rulings also had an impact on job discrimination, minority housing and affirmative action in the Detroit Police Department.

He was a master of swearing-in ceremonies and loved showing off the enviable wall of fame in his federal chambers, filled with a who's who of photos, just a few of the big names he honored over the decades at his annual soul food luncheon, a black history month tradition topped off with the Soul and Spirit Humanitarian Award.

in 2011, he was right there front and center at his alma mater to celebrate the opening of Wayne State University's Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, a legacy that will help generations of law students carry on his crusade.

"We've come a long ways. I was in Washington DC for the inauguration of President Barack Obama and I had tears in my eyes,” Keith said at the Ford Freedom Awards.

But for all the progress he fought for and witnessed during his lifetime, Judge Keith would turn to that often-quoted phrase again to remind us there are new oceans yet to discover.

"Let us all remember we have that obligation to lose sight of the shore,” he would say. “We still have a lot to do."