New documentary explores pivotal civil rights cases of Detroit Judge

196d8c_7572716896544400aa1121608f2b55fdA new documentary explores the life of a Detroit Judge who ruled on some of the most pivotal Civil Rights cases of his time, from segregation and workers rights, to public housing and wire tapping.

The film, Walk WIth Me, debuted at the Traverse City Film Festival and was attended by the film’s subject: Judge Damon Keith.

Ben Thorp sat down with Director Jesse Nesser to talk about the film.


Nesser: Judge Keith kind of found me, he was 91 years old at the time and his biography had just come out and I was brought on to do some work.

Here’s a story that spans 95 years of US history from 1922 to today and nobody had told it. And this single civil rights leader that was in the shadows of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and was really working behind the scenes to make what they were fighting for in the 60’s law in the 70’s.

Ben: I’m wondering if you’ll talk briefly about some of the cases that he presided over and the impact of some of those cases.

Nesser: A lot of people if you say Judge Damon J. Keith they say ‘well who is that?’ Then if you say the Pontiac busing protests, or the police affirmative action case, the Detroit riots, the Detroit Edison case they say ‘oh I remember reading about that, I remember seeing that on television.’ He’s the person who was behind those cases that people remember reading about in the 70’s.

Judge Keith was appointed by President Johnson to the Federal Bench in 1967 three months after the Detroit riots. In the first five years of him being a rookie judge, he ended up drawing four of the first racial discrimination lawsuits as one of the only black judges in Detroit. So here you have someone who has lived the lawsuits he is about to decide.

The cases dealt with school discrimination, housing discrimination, employment discrimination, and police discrimination. All issues that we find ourselves debating in 2016 today. The only reason we’re having these conversations is because Judge Keith and judges like Judge Keith ruled in a way that gave the underdog and the plaintiffs and black plaintiffs a win. He set the precedent for having the debates that we’re having today.

Ben: I’m wondering when you sit down and you talk to Judge Keith does he feel like progress has been made?

Nesser: I remember when we were editing the Detroit riot scene. In the background of our editing room we had CNN on and the Baltimore riots were playing out live on tv. It was so eerie to see how similar the images from 1967 and 2015, how similar those images were.

We’ve asked Judge Keith about ‘look at everything we’re talking about today and all the discrimination we’re seeing today do you feel like progress has been made?’ And he says yes. You have to remember that back when he was my age, I’m 26, you couldn’t even be a black person and voice the opinions that black people are voicing today, you couldn’t even protest.

Ben: What do you think the lasting legacy of Judge Keith is?

Nesser: I would not be surprised if there are lawyers in court today who are using Judge Keith’s cases to argue their own cases over issues we’re debating today. Police affirmative action on police stations is still something that’s happening today and Detroit is a great example of how a very controversial program can 100% help balance out an unequal police force.

Ben: What is the hope with this film? Is it just to tell this story?

Nesser: Our hope is to leave a lasting impression on the people who didn’t know his story and remind people that the dialogues we are having today are not new. We were having them 40 years ago and 50 years ago. So many civil rights leaders passed away before a movie could be made about them told by them. There are a lot of movies about Martin Luther King and a lot of movies about Rosa Parks but no movies where they are sitting down and telling their own story. Here you have a 94 year old judge who is still a judge, goes to work every day, remembers everything, and no one has given him the opportunity to sit down and tell us what the last 95 years have been like. He’s been alive for over a third of our country’s history.