walk with me

This 94-year-old is the most badass civil rights judge you’ve never heard of

Walk With Me

You could say he’s the Forrest Gump of the Civil Rights Movement.

Since 1967, black judge Damon J. Keith has been a quiet storm on the national court scene, especially when it comes to race issues. The 94-year-old is still chugging along today as a sitting judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit—our country’s second-highest court. Now, he’s the subject of a new documentary called Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith, which is making the film-circuit rounds.

“There’s a phrase in writing, sometimes, when you stumble upon an almost unbelievable story: It’s the greatest story you never heard,” author Mitch Albom, executive producer for Walk With Me, says at one point during the film. “And in some ways, Judge Damon Keith is the greatest judge you never heard of.”

Like Albom’s most famous novel, Tuesdays With Morrie, Keith’s story is ripe with wisdom and transparent in its desire to inspire viewers. It challenges them to do better and more in life.

The filmmaking process started in late 2013 after Time magazine asked first-time feature-length documentary director Jesse Nesser, 26, to shoot a quick segment on Keith. The judge told stories from his then-recently published book, Crusader for Justice.

But what was supposed to be two minutes turned into 60.

“I turned the camera on, and next thing you know, I’m there for an hour until the tape runs out,” Nesser told me.

He noticed that there were many documentaries about big names in the Civil Rights Movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall, but all were made posthumously. Keith’s story would be different. “I thought: Here’s an opportunity to do a civil rights documentary about someone who created change, but who is still alive, and is still working,” Nesser said.

“I turned the camera on, and next thing you know, I’m there for an hour until the tape runs out.”

- Jesse Nesser, 'Walk With Me' director

Born in Detroit in 1922, Keith grew up in the shadow of the Great Migration, which brought Jim Crow-style racism from the Deep South to the rest of America.

In Keith’s first major case after President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in 1967, he ruled against the state’s Pontiac School District, which was effectively operating “separate but equal” schools. Those on the black side of town were inferior to those on the white side, so Keith demanded that Pontiac provide bus rides to both black and white students to integrate schools on both sides of town.

His 1970 ruling attracted nationwide attention. People threatened Keith’s life. Fearing integration, white parents refused to send their children to school, and moved out of town, en masse.

“If we don’t stand up now to this threat, we have no country left for our children. It’s not busing, it’s not integration—it’s communism,” a white community leader yells in protest of the ruling, part of a montage of archival footage in Walk With Me.

Ku Klux Klan members even bombed 10 Pontiac school buses that were supposed to be used for transportation. Despite its controversy, Keith’s ruling was later upheld in appeals court, and cited in a 1977 report by the United States Commission on Civil Rights as a precedent-setting case for the positive effects of integration regardless of short-term setbacks.

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-4-56-22-pmChicago Tribune archives

If that case put Keith on the map, the landmark 1973 Stamps v. Detroit Edison decision kept him there. In it, Keith ruled against the utilities company, which was placing black dots in between black job applicants’ initials on their submissions. The discriminatory code ensured that only a token number would get hired. Keith awarded an unprecedented $4 million dollars to the defendant. His ruling marked the first major victory in American history against racial discrimination in employment, undoubtedly influencing corporate hiring practices across the country.

“How can a man take care of his wife and his children and his family if he can’t find a place to work, and a black dot would keep him from getting a promotion?” Keith asks in Walk With Me.

screen-shot-2016-10-19-at-2-37-54-pmWalk With Me screenshot

The list of Keith’s monumental decisions goes on, all of which were upheld on appeals: a ruling against Hamtramck, a city in Michigan that used development and transportation dollars to systematically demolish a black part of town, displacing residents from their homes; and a ruling in favor of affirmative action in the Detroit Police Department, following riots that were widely blamed on the racial gap between the city’s residents and its police officers. Keith even penned a landmark right-to-privacy decision against President Richard Nixon who illegally ordered wiretapping of his political opponents—yet another important civil rights issue.

Although it’s not mentioned in Walk With Me, Keith more recently ruled against John Ashcroft, the former attorney general under President George W. Bush, who closed deportation hearings to the public in the wake of 9/11.

“The Executive Branch seeks to uproot people’s lives, outside the public eye, and behind a closed door,” he wrote in his ruling on the case. “Democracies die behind closed doors.”

The tale of justice that Nesser weaves, featuring long interviews with Keith and others, is one of continued growth. Indeed, Walk With Me offers hope to the current civil rights movement (commonly called Black Lives Matter), whose members are skeptical that the system can successfully address racial injustice.

During filming in August 2014, unrest erupted in Ferguson, MO., after unarmed black teen Michael Brown was fatally shot by white police officer Darren Wilson, according to Nesser. So, what started as a backward-looking project became increasingly tied to the news cycle.

“I’ll never forget editing the scene about the Detroit riots, and looking up, and the Baltimore riots are happening on television,” Nesser said. “It was surreal, because these things never went away.”

Walk With Me brings us back to a time when America’s civil rights situation looked hopeless to many, yet one person was still able to make huge strides. In the documentary, Keith passes along the baton, urging the next generation to do their part. Working within the system can and does work, he insists, so don’t give up hope.

“If you zero in on what you want to do, and say, ‘I want to make this country better than it is, and I want to use the law as a means to do this—not to make a lot of money, but what can you use your legal skills for to make a difference in America and in people’s minds about who we are, male or female, black or white, Jew or gentile’,” Keith says in the documentary, “you can do it.”