Editorial: W.Va. State honoree a human rights inspiration

A 2013 Wayne State University Press biography begins:

“Damon J. Keith may be the greatest American jurist never to have sat on the Supreme Court, and certainly the staunchest on behalf of civil rights for all, and on government conducted in the open, to be seen by all.”

The subject of the book, Judge Keith, is a legendary West Virginia State University graduate who was honored Aug. 13 by the naming of an elegant $30 million WVSU dormitory for him. His life story symbolizes the long, bitter struggle by African Americans to attain equality in America.

A grandson of slaves, he was born in segregated Detroit in 1922, son of a low-paid Ford plant worker. He earned a bachelor’s degree at WVSU in 1943 and served in an all-black U.S. Army unit in World War II.

“After the war was over and I returned to the states, I could see white German soldiers riding in the front of the bus and going into restaurants in the states that said ‘for whites only,’” he recounted in a Detroit Free Press interview.

He said former WVSU President John W. Davis told him: “Damon, Howard University law school is setting up a law team to eliminate segregation in the country.” So he attended, studied under Thurgood Marshall, and earned a law degree in 1949. He returned to Detroit, but found work only as a janitor.

He finally became an aide to a black judge and plunged into politics, campaigning for Sen. Phil Hart, D-Mich., and helping John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. Eventually, Hart recommended him for a federal judgeship, and President Lyndon Johnson appointed him in 1967.

Judge Keith scored landmark rulings. One forced the Nixon administration to stop making illegal wiretaps without a court order. Later, he ruled that deportation cases could not be conducted in secret.

In 1991, when he was 69, Judge Keith headed a national commission marking the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. At a judicial seminar at the College of William & Mary, a rich hotel guest tossed his keys to the judge and barked: “Here, boy, park this car.” Judge Keith told fellow seminar members that the incident shows ingrained prejudice constantly inflicted on blacks.

Now in his 90s, Judge Keith is a shining example of crusaders who spent their lives working for human decency and justice. We’re proud to count him as a West Virginian.

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