by Janie Magruder
Rev. Julius C. Keller, a third-generation attorney who, like his forefathers, spent decades advocating for the civil rights of all Americans, and has since become a defender of the Gospel, will speak at Dayspring Tempe on Sunday, January 15 at 9:00 and 10:30.
The featured soloist is Gordon Hawkins, an internationally acclaimed baritone and voice professor in the ASU School of Music, Dance and Theatre. Hawkins has shared operatic and concert stages with such distinguished artists as Placido Domingo, Mirella Freni and Luciano Pavarotti.
“Jesus encouraged people to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him,” said Keller, former pastor of Cross in the Desert UMC in Phoenix. “That was the hallmark of Dr. King’s life, too.”
Dayspring’s lead pastor Rev. Jeff Procter-Murphy said Keller’s inherited social conscience and eventual call to ministry offer important lessons to everyone.
“One thing we forget with MLK, is that it was his faith that propelled him,” Procter-Murphy said. “The civil rights movement was born out of understanding the Gospel, that we are all God’s children. And it follows that we should advocate for all of God’s children.”
Procter-Murphy, who has known Keller for about 16 years, said his message comes at an opportune time.
“Now more than ever, it’s important to hear the stories of others, to recognize the systemic injustices of our society, and to do what we can to make the world more like MLK’s dream,” he said.
Without revealing too much, Keller said his message will include some of his indoctrination to MLK’s teachings and accepting God’s mission for his life.
“We must be the voice of change, be committed and involved,” he said. “We can’t just walk around on Sunday and say, ‘That’s a great message,” and do nothing from Monday to Saturday. We have to stand up and become involved in His plan.”
Keller was born into a family of lawyers. His grandfather was the only Black law student in his class at Northwestern Law School, and used his degree to eradicate lynchings in Marion, Ind., in the early 1900s, Keller said.
“My family for generations had two core values — faith and higher education,” said Keller, who grew up Cincinnati, Ohio, and attended Mt. Zion United Methodist Church, the “nerve center of the community. I was taught from the beginning who God is, and that we have a Savior in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit dwells within every believer.”
Keller’s father started classes at Columbia Law School, then interrupted his schooling to fight in World War II, later finishing his degree at the Lincoln School of Law in St. Louis, Mo. He was executive secretary to the National Bar Association, the nation’s oldest and largest global network of Black attorneys and judges, and a member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. He consulted with Thurgood Marshall on Brown v. Board of Education, a landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case in which racial segregation of children in public schools was ruled unconstitutional.
“Dad was like Dr. King in a lot of ways because they condensed so much of their lives into a short span,” said Keller who was three when his father died at age 35. “But I pursued everything about him from the time I was little.”
In high school, Keller was keenly interested in African history, South African leader Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid movement. He was unhappy that they were absent from the curriculum, and so participated in protests at his high school so that African history became part of the core curriculum.
“My grandfather had worked in an area of law that made a difference to the community and to people of color, and from the time he was young, my Dad was put in leadership positions to bring people together,” said Keller, whose mother was a language arts teacher and a leader in the community.“I wanted to be like them.”
Keller earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, cum laude, from Ohio University in 1974, and a law degree from The Ohio State University College of Law in 1977. He immediately went to work for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, supervising litigation in six states. He later spend his legal career enforcing the Fair Housing Act and related civil rights laws for HUD’s regional office in Chicago.
“Dr. King died when I was 15, and days later LBJ (President Lyndon Baines Johnson) signed the Fair Housing Act,” also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968. It prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended) handicap and family status. “That helped me see that all people deserve decent, safe, sanitary housing.”
Keller also was assistant general counsel of the Leadership Council, an extension of his work enforcing the Fair Housing Act.
He wasn’t looking for a career change, but an exchange with the dean of admissions at the Methodist Theological School in Delaware, Ohio, prompted just that. Armed with a scholarship and a pastoral appointment to Lockbourne UMC, Keller enrolled in classes, eventually earning a Master of Divinity degree.
“A friend said, ‘What took you so long?’” Keller smiled. “It was my calling from birth. God’s been a great provider all my life. When you are driven by the Word, it makes a difference in your life.”
Keller and his wife, Katharine, also a pastor, moved to Arizona in 2006 to start Living Water United Methodist Fellowship in Gilbert. The couple served there until 2015. Katharine currently is associate pastor at Gold Canyon UMC.
“From housing to leading people to Christ,” said Keller, reflecting on his life. “What an honor and what a journey.”