A federal judge who worked until his recent death at age 96 left a historic trail of groundbreaking legal opinions. But one case outlived Damon Keith: the longest-running housing discrimination lawsuit in the United States.
Keith declared in 1971 that Hamtramck, a tiny Detroit-area city long known for Polish culture, had intentionally forced out blacks or cut them off from the community to make room for Interstate 75 and so-called urban renewal projects in the 1950s and ’60s.
Hamtramck finally agreed to offer 200 family housing units, as well as housing for senior citizens, for violating the constitutional rights of black residents. Yet even today — decades later — there still are three houses left to build. Keith, who died on April 28, won’t see the keys change hands, an unfortunate postscript for a judge whose steadfast enforcement of civil rights was the emblem of his career.
“The finish line will probably be this summer,” said Michael Barnhart, an attorney who has represented generations of black families in the litigation. “I know his health was declining, but I wanted him to be there after all these years.”
Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski said: “It’s bittersweet. The end really is around the corner.”
Keith, the grandson of slaves, was a judge for 52 years, first at the U.S. District Court in Detroit, followed by 42 years on a federal appeals court. He made history on the bench, ruling against the Nixon administration’s use of warrantless phone taps and ordering George W. Bush’s administration to open deportation hearings.
In the Hamtramck lawsuit, filed in 1968, Keith noted that blacks made up less than 15% of the city’s population but represented more than 70% of residents whose neighborhoods were broken up because of the path of I-75. He also cited other examples.
“The judge referred to it as the ‘black removal case,'” Barnhart said. “It was an extreme example of racial discrimination.”
After nearly a decade, Hamtramck agreed to offer housing at below-market rates to families that wanted to return. But that solution languished for many more years, due to political opposition and the city’s poor finances. By 2010, half of the 200 units were complete, and Keith proudly attended a ribbon-cutting at a new home on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Then work stalled again.
“The problem always was the city was broke,” Barnhart said. “Through the whole case we’ve tried to identify federal programs or county programs or state programs to help us put together the housing that was needed. That has been the fundamental problem.”
Keith had the case for virtually his entire career, keeping it until 2018 despite his promotion to the appeals court. In his 2014 biography, “Crusader for Justice,” the judge scoffed at critics who accused him of “social engineering.”
“If I see inequities … as it relates to discrimination and violation of the law, then I have broad authority to fashion a remedy,” Keith said.
Lemuel Sawyer, 61, and his sisters are among those who have benefited from Keith’s decision. His family was forced out when he was a boy, but he returned to Hamtramck in 2014 to live in a new two-story home. His parents are dead.
“To me, this is my mother’s home. This is my family’s home,” Sawyer said, speaking in his doorway on Goodson Street. “Judge Damon Keith — he saved the day. He gave us optimism.”
Hamtramck, a 2-square-mile (5.1-square-kilometer) city surrounded by Detroit, was a haven for Polish immigrants who worked in area factories. A park features a towering statue of St. John Paul II, who visited as a cardinal and as pope. But the city now is culturally diverse: Someone looking for a meal can find a pierogi on one side of Hamtramck and a kebab at the other. Most City Council members are Muslim. A mosque sits across the street from a Roman Catholic church.
“The greatest monument in Hamtramck to Judge Keith is the fact that most of the residents have learned to live together in peace,” city attorney James Allen said.