Judge Damon Keith's legacy, 'pearls of wisdom' remembered at visitation
As former law clerks, friends and members of the public gathered during Saturday's visitation for her father, former federal judge and civil rights icon Damon Keith, Debbie Keith said she was amazed at the "outpouring of love and respect."
Keith said her father, who died April 28 Sunday morning at the age of 96, continued to work up until his final days.
"He worked until Thursday ... didn't want to stop working," Keith explained, adding that she remembers her father used to sing a song from church called "On the Battlefield."
In part, the hymn goes:
"And I promised him that I would serve him 'til I die.
I am on the battlefield for my Lord."
She said her father wanted to do just that.
Throughout the morning, folks trickled in to pay their respects at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on East Warren Avenue, which hosted a public visitation. Arrangements of red roses were placed on either side of the shiny, black casket inside of the museum's atrium, and many guests stopped to shake Debbie Keith's hand or offer a hug as they reminisced about her father.
Several mentioned his kindness, others his gentleness, but all remarked on his legacy as a champion for justice and equality.
"My dad would've been really touched," she said.
Keith's father, a grandson of slaves, was the nation's longest-serving black judge whose consequential rulings cemented his legacy as a champion for civil liberties and changed the lives of many. His decisions led to the desegregation of Pontiac schools, rebuked federal wiretapping without a court order and pushed back against private deportation hearings.
A number of Keith's former clerks signed up to be on-site as honor guards. Noceeba Southern, now a judge in Columbus, Ohio, told the Free Press she clerked for Damon Keith from 1998 to 1999 and said her life wouldn't be the same, had he not decided to take a chance on her.
"I think last week was harder than today," Southern said, explaining that when she first heard of his passing, a period of grief started, but Saturday's visitation felt like an opportunity to come and honor him.
Southern said she just wanted to tell the former federal judge, "Thank you" and "I love you."
Recalling a past meet-up she orchestrated with former governor Jennifer Granholm, also a former clerk for Keith, Southern said the pair got together to surprise him in Cincinnati around late 2017, early 2018.
Remembering the look on his face, Southern smiled.
Southern said he would always offer up "pearls of wisdom," and from him, she learned to stay humble, to turn failures into successes and to always get back up again.
Keith's law office was across from Tom Costello's father's in the Guardian Building, and Costello said he got to know the civil rights titan as he was growing up.
It was while Costello of Royal Oak was around age 8 that he met Keith, and he said the former federal judge became a mentor for him. Costello said he's now been an attorney for 41 years.
Keith was a "kind soul," Costello remembered, who understood how to serve others as well as the importance of having "a great sense of honesty."
Alex Parrish, now a partner at the Honigman firm in Detroit, clerked for Keith in 1981, and remembered him as a "wonderful man, great lawyer and judge and a very good teacher."
"I'm amazed at how strongly the community felt about him," Parrish said, adding that he saw people lined up to pay their respects at the museum at 8 a.m.
A number of folks who didn't know Keith personally, but shared in the belief that his life's work made a big difference, also stopped by to pay their respects.
Diane Mitchell said her children attended the former Damon J. Keith Elementary School in Detroit, and while she now lives in Macomb Township, she came to honor his legacy.
"It's not saying goodbye, it's saying, you left a legacy of justice and peace always."
Funeral arrangements: A homegoing celebration for Keith is scheduled at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church at 10 a.m. Monday, 18700 James Couzens, Detroit. The service will be simulcast at Wayne State's Community Arts Auditorium at 450 Reuther Mall, Detroit
An interment is expected at Roseland Park Cemetery in Berkley.
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Contact Aleanna Siacon; ASiacon@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter: @AleannaSiacon. Staff writer Ann Zaniewski, plus Detroit Free Press special writers Cassandra Spratling and David Ashenfelter contributed,