Legal Milestone honors Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act

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By Roberta M. Gubbins

Legal News
 
Daisy Elliot and Mel Larsen proposed the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to the Michigan Legislature in the mid-seventies when the civil rights movement was in full swing, however, many Michigan residents were still at risk of discrimination. Elliot and Larsen saw the need and now, thanks to their efforts, many barriers of the past have been successfully challenged and removed.
 
The State Bar of Michigan recognized their landmark law advancing equal opportunity at the 37th Legal Milestone dedication on Tuesday, Aug. 28, at the state Capitol building in Lansing. The award-winning Michigan Legal Milestones Program recognizes significant cases, events and personalities in our state’s history.
 
Thomas M. Cooley Law School Auburn Hills Associate Dean John Nussbaumer spoke of Michigan’s history of protecting civil rights.
 
Long before the famous Brown v the Board of Education in 1954, the case that made desegregated schools the law of the land, Michigan, years ahead of the nation, “reached the same conclusion with a statute passed in 1867, which stated ‘all residents of any school district shall have an equal right to attend any school therein.’” Nussbaumer noted that in 1885 Michigan had a public accommodation statute, which stated “all persons within the jurisdiction of the state shall be entitled to full and equal accommodations and privileges of inns, restaurants, eating houses and all other places of public accommodations.”
 
“It was this political climate,” he said, “that made it possible for people like Mel Larsen and Daisy Elliot to bring the Civil Rights act to the legislature and get it enacted.”
 
Mel Larsen received a standing ovation as he came to the podium.
 
“Daisy and I never thought forty years ago that we would be standing before you today,” Larsen said.
 
Commenting on the how the statute came to be, he noted that Daisy “came out of Detroit and was a leader in the civil rights movement. She came in during the 1964-65 session, a time of civil unrest.
 
“At the time most of the legislature was Democrat and white male that had come out of suburban, rural areas while the black community was mostly urban. The attitude of the legislature toward the civil rights act? They would probably have preferred a root canal.”
 
Larsen came into the legislature in 1973. He was asked to help move the civil rights act that “Daisy had in her hand and wanted to introduce.” She was told she could only do that with bi-partisan support. Larsen, a Republican agreed to support the legislation. On the day that the bill was scheduled to be voted out of committee, “the room was wall to wall handicappers in wheel-chairs and the gays and lesbians and women rights advocates who proceeded to claim that the proposed law, as drafted, was short sighted.
 
“We adjourned.”
 
The Act came before the legislature again in the 1975 session.
 
“It was a wonderful thing,” he said “watching how that (the vote) worked on a bi-partisan way. You can appreciate the fight that took place on the house floor with people wanting to water it down.” The bill came out of the House and went to Senate with amendments and “once again we had to fight to get concurrence on those amendments.”
 
Larsen concluded saying that the bill was the result of the legislators recognizing the “importance of the civil rights and sticking with us. In the end there were 25 votes in the Senate and 79 votes in the House.”
 
The act passed and was named after its strongest proponents, Elliot and Larsen.
 
Aliyah Sabree, great-granddaughter of Daisy Elliott and Wayne County assistant prosecutor, spoke of how profoundly she and other family members were influenced by their grandmother, whom she described as determined, but who knew that “compromise is the way to get things done in Lansing.”
 
When asked “Why the civil rights act now?” Sabree read Elliot’s answer:
 
“The question of civil rights is not an issue which is being widely discussed and much debated and has caused much concern...you wonder why this issue should be so important. Let us examine the question in the United States. We, being the personification of freedom in the world and the leader in the fight for a free people, with rights and privileges accorded to all men, have failed, in our own right, to recognize the minority groups in our backyard. Some of the delegates have said to me: What does the Negro, as one minority, want? Why are they pushing so hard for these rights? We are going to give them but it takes a little time for these things. I guess, Mr. President, you would have to be in the position of a Negro to understand what is in the hearts and souls. To ask for the rights accorded to one under our constitution is not pushing. To want equal opportunities is not being impatient. To want to be free is not wanting to impose upon a society that has been closed to you.”
 
The State Bar of Michigan’s Presdient Julie Fershtman and Executive Director Janet Welch shared the emcee duties at the dedication ceremony.
 
Dr. Daniel Krichbaum, director, Michigan Department of Civil Rights, complemented the staff of the department for their dedication and spoke of the importance of diversity to society.
 
Rep. Fred Durhal Jr., Michigan House of Representatives, who acknowledged that Daisy Elliot was his mentor, added that his “job in the legislature is to get more money for civil rights. The Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act is important to all people.”
 
The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act has been amended several times to protect groups not originally named in the act. Most recently, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed Public Act 190, a 2009 amendment that increased employment protections for pregnant workers.
 
The Michigan Legal Milestones program recognizes significant legal cases and personalities in Michigan’s history and uses bronze plaques, placed at featured sites, to relate the historical significance. A new milestone is dedicated each year. The Legal Milestone plaques are on display across the state.
 
The State Bar of Michigan Law-Related Education and Public Outreach Committee, chaired by Jeffrey Paulsen and Margaret Krasnoff, oversees the Michigan Legal Milestones program. The Davis-Dunnings Bar Association was the State Bar’s partner in the ELCRA milestone dedication.
 
More information about the Michigan Legal Milestones program can be found at www.michbar.org/programs/milestones.cfm.

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