by Larry Lehna
It seems fitting that this remarkable man was born on the Fourth of July. His is the story of a true American hero and it should be an inspiration to all of us. Former New York Times columnist Bob Herbert once wrote, “You want a hero? A real hero? I nominate Judge Damon J. Keith of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.” Mitch Albom does a beautiful job in the foreword of describing the determination and patience that defined this man who became a legal giant. The book takes you from Keith’s humble upbringing through his college years and his service in World War II and continues with his time at Howard University Law School and on to Wayne State University Law School. We are forced to contemplate the unfairness of our own country throughout the twentieth century with many tales of the slights and injustices that this steadfast man had suffered. The authors outline the many obstacles that had to be overcome by a war veteran and also a member of the Bar, just because of his race. Where these two distinctions both served to open doors for a white person they were looked upon with suspicion for men like the young Damon Keith.
Courage seems an inadequate term to be used as a defining quality when you consider the years Keith spent working to overcome prejudice in every facet of his life. Often this courage meant biting his tongue when he most wanted to scream out at the unfairness of it all. He was wise enough to realize that a mindless reaction to his personal difficulties would not help to win the fight he had been waging since he was a child.
This book is a testament to a man whose devotion to his cause took precedence over his own problems. Keith’s was a life of single-minded concentration on a goal that while guaranteed in our constitution, was only accessible to whites. He knew the only possible avenue of change must come from within the government itself.
Keith bided his time and eventually found himself in a position to affect the change that had been so elusive. The authors describe many scenes in which Keith was in a place to return an insult in kind, but instead ruled with his conscience. His most famous ruling may have been in a case when the U. S. government wanted to close deportation hearings. In a ruling for the ages Judge Keith stood against the government with this quotation, “Democracies die behind closed doors.” For Damon Keith justice was not just for his race, it was for all. Just the way our constitution says it should be.A story of a great man and a damn good book.