The first Black Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School on Monday, May 17.
The Keith Center is named after the venerable Damon J. Keith, senior judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose work has inspired a generation of African-American lawyers.
The ceremony came on the heels of generous gifts made to the law school, including a combined gift from the Henry Ford II Fund and the Edsel B. Ford II Fund and a gift from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. A. Alfred Taubman donated $3 million to the Keith Center, making it the largest philanthropic gift to Wayne Law School.
In addition to his gift, Edsel Ford has commissioned a portrait of Judge Keith by local artist Nancy Mitter that will be displayed in the exhibit area of the center.
Holder, tapped to lead the Justice Department by President Obama, addressed a crowd of about 600 during which he called Keith his role model.
“Without him, there would be no me,” Holder said.
Holder recalled his days at Columbia Law School when he and other students organized a sit-in and held the dean of the law school, in his own words, “captive” because they wanted a lounge where Black students could “hang out” as well as study.
Holder, drawing from his own background of protesting against unjust laws, praised Judge Keith as a towering icon of the law whose decisionsstood for “equal justice under the law.”
Keith has been lauded many times for building a liberal consensus on the court.
In United States v. Sinclair Keith famously ruled that President Richard Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, had to disclose the transcripts of illegal wiretaps that Mitchell had authorized without first obtaining a search warrant. Keith’s decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in United States v. U.S. District Court contributed in 1978 to President Jimmy Carter signing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That decision is commemorated as a Michigan Legal Milestone called “the Uninvited Ear” and erected by the State Bar of Michigan.
In Garrett v. City of Hamtramck, Keith ruled that the City of Hamtramck practiced “Negro removal” under the guise of urban renewal and ordered the city to build new public housing, and in Stamp v. Detroit Edison Co. he ruled that the company had practiced systematic racial discrimination and must assume an aggressive affirmative action plan.
In 2002, Keith wrote “democracies die behind closed doors,” a rebuke of the Bush administration’s commitment to an open democracy in a case involving suspected terrorists and whether hearings for the suspects should be closed.
“I am grateful to the Henry Ford II Fund, the Edsel B. Ford II Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and other university alumni and friends for making the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights a priority,” said Wayne State University President Jay Noren. “The Keith Center will play a pivotal role in civil rights education and awareness nationwide through its various programs of legal studies and community outreach.”
Noren thanked Holder for agreeing to keynote an important event in the university’s life.
Among those in attendance were Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who once clerked for Keith. Granholm said Keith’s true legacy is all about action and called for the Keith Center to be used as the foundation for action. She told a cheering crowd she was excited to have studied under Keith.
Mayor Dave Bing, former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, U.S. Reps. John Conyers and Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, and Michigan Court of Appeals Judge Kurtis Wilder also attended.
Bing read a testimonial resolution bestowed to Keith by the Office of Mayor.
The Keith Center honors the life and legacy of Judge Keith by carrying out his vision for civil rights. The center will advance learning, attract talented faculty, students and lecturers, enhance programming, and promote civil rights in one of the most culturally rich and diverse cities in the United States. It will have active programs of legal studies and will promote community engagement.
The 10,000-square-foot Keith Center building features an exhibit area, meeting space, conference space and a 60-person lecture hall. An exhibit area featuring Judge Keith’s life and work and focusing on civil rights will also serve as a reception area for the law school’s clinics.
In 2009, the law school moved forward on a number of Keith Center programming initiatives thanks to more than $2.5 million in endowments. It announced the appointment of John A. Powell as its first Damon J. Keith Distinguished Visiting Professor and Wayne Law Professor Peter Hammer as director of the Keith Center.
As director, Hammer is responsible for initiating and continuing an array of programs, including the Keith Biennial Lecture.
University of Michigan law professor Dana Alicia Thompson served as immediate past director of the Damon J. Keith Collection of African American Legal History at Wayne before taking up an appointment at the University of Michigan.
Outside of his legal contributions, Judge Keith has been a supporter of several community initiatives, most notably the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. At a time when the museum’s finances were in the red and faced the threat of closing, Keith summoned African-American business and civic leaders to his chambers, challenging them to step up and save an important cultural institution.
The result of that meeting was a pledge of thousands of dollars that would later help the largest depository of African-American history in the nation to continue operation.
Patrick Keating contributed to this story.