Two of freedom’s great champions of the 20th century died recently — federal judge Damon Keith and former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar.
You may not know their names, but you and generations of Americans to come will experience the impact of their lives spent in public service.
They were alike in their fierce determination to protect this nation and defend its freedoms, even as they were different in many ways: Democrat and Republican, judge and legislator, black and white, one focused on domestic issues, the other considered a preeminent expert on foreign relations.
Keith, 96, began serving on the federal bench in 1967 and lived in Detroit. Lugar, 87, entered politics as an Indianapolis school board member, then mayor, before being elected to the U.S. Senate for six terms starting in 1976 — the longest serving senator in Indiana history.
The New York Times, Politico and others described Keith as one born into poverty in Detroit, as a young man serving in a segregated U.S. Army unit in WWII and, after the war, waiting on tables and cleaning restrooms while attending school.
Keith would be mentored at Howard University School of Law by Thurgood Marshall, future first black justice of the Supreme Court, and by William Hastie, the first black man to be named a federal judge. Keith never faltered in a lifelong battle against the racial prejudice that followed him, even into his senior years on the bench.
In a 2016 film about his life, Keith told of chairing a judicial conference in Virginia in his later years and, while standing outside the conference site a white man drove up and said to him, “Boy, park my car.”
As the Times noted, Keith “attacked racial segregation in education, housing and employment.” He fought against conservative efforts to limit African-American voting rights, ruled against widespread government wiretaps and incursions by law enforcement.
By contrast, The Indianapolis Star and others noted that Lugar was born in the Indianapolis area to a farm family. He was an Eagle Scout, first in his high school class, a Phi Beta Kappa at Denison College and a Rhodes Scholar.
Lugar’s career moved quickly to the national stage, where he remained for more than three decades. Lugar led Senate confirmation of treaties with the Soviet Union limiting nuclear weapons during the 1980s. After the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, he and Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn led the legislative effort to demolish weapons of mass destruction in its successor states.
After losing in the 2012 Indiana GOP primary to a candidate who portrayed Lugar as not conservative enough, he turned his attention to the Washington-based Lugar Center, focused on two long-time interests of his: global food issues and controlling, or eliminating to the degree possible, weapons of mass destruction.
I was fortunate to know them both: Keith as participant in an ongoing program of the Freedom Forum Institute that brings together federal judges and journalists in periodic discussions on how to report accurately and in more depth about the workings of the federal courts; and Lugar, earlier in my career, as a reporter covering him as Indy’s mayor and later as a U.S. Senator.
For both Lugar and Keith, the scope of their lives can be described as deeply concerned for the rights, safety and dignity of others. Keith focused on dismantling the legacies of segregation and fighting bigotry, while Lugar’s diplomatic efforts drove practical methods of dismantling nuclear weapon stockpiles and eliminating biological and chemical weapons. As firm advocates for the core values embodied in the First Amendment’s freedoms, both men — though certainly partisan in party designation — also found ways to reach across the political aisles and divergent views that currently divide so many in public life.
Damon Keith. Richard Lugar. Two American citizens whose lives and commitment to freedom and the United States made differences for all of us.