Legal Milestone honors Elliott Larsen Act, part of Michigan's civil rights leadership



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A ceremony honoring the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) Tuesday was graced by the presence of both of the legislators who lent the act their names and established a partnership across the aisles to have it enacted.

Under the beautiful dome of the State Capitol Building, the State Bar of Michigan dedicated its 37th Legal Milestone plaque to ELCRA.

The noteworthy bipartisan manner in which ELCRA was passed is owed to the vision of Democratic Representative Daisy Elliott and the impressive expenditure of political capital on the part of Republican Representative Mel Larsen.

Elliott is now in a wheelchair but was assisted by solicitous family members and friends, including Larsen, to her place at the front of the proceedings.

Rep. Larsen spoke at the ceremony, reflecting on the work needed to get the bill enacted and the factors that made it necessary.

Though the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the law of the land and becoming even more entrenched through enhanced enforcement and supporting laws, Larsen thought it was the Michigan anti-bussing movement (which opposed bussing minority students to distant school districts to achieve integration) that renewed the necessity for a state act prohibiting discrimination across the board. “The Democrats had a majority, but the legislators were mostly white suburban males, so anti-bussing legislation might have been possible.”

When Elliott reached out to him for support, he agreed that it was an important moral imperative. He stuck by that through thick and thin, gaining the support of many other Republicans.

He said that as the time came for the vote, two by two people in wheelchairs entered and circled the chambers. The leadership asked the clerk to “open the board” and the Act passed.

Larsen also expressed his deep respect and appreciation for Daisy Elliott’s persistence.

Elliott was primarily responsible for what was perhaps an even more historic Michigan action, coming as it did before the national Civil Rights Act. Elliott was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1961-1962 and ensured that equal protections were part of the Michigan Constitution. It was Elliott who pushed for the inclusion of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission at Con-Con.

But as Associate Dean of Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Auburn Hills Campus John Nussbaumer noted when it was his time to speak, Michigan has long been a leader in civil rights law and court decisions.

In 1867, the Michigan Legislature had passed a law stating “All residents of any school district shall have an equal right to attend any school therein.” It was Thomas M. Cooley himself, sitting as Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, who interpreted that law as meaning that children of color should be able to  attend Detroit’s white schools.

In his decision in the 1869 People ex rel Joseph Workman v. The Board of Education of Detroit, Cooley stated, “It cannot be seriously urged that with  this provision in force, the school board of any district...may...exclude any resident...because of race or color, or religious belief... It is too plain for argument that an equal right to all the schools, irrespective of all such distinctions, was meant to be established.”

In 1890, the Michigan Supreme Court followed suit in public accommodations, citing an 1885 Michigan statute. This struck a blow against the “separate but equal” doctrine that was inherent in Federal law until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Similar court decisions followed on equal pay in 1940 and on housing in 1952.

Along with Michigan Representative Fred Durhal, Jr., and Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) Director Daniel Krichbaum, Daisy Elliott’s great-granddaughter, Aliyah Sabree, addressed Tuesday’s approximately-100-person audience.

Sabree is now an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in the Wayne State Prosecutor’s Office, but in 2008 she was a summer associate at Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge.
She said that although while growing up she always knew her great-grandmother was “important,” it was not until her second year of law school that she realized how far-reaching the act bearing Daisy Elliott’s name is.

In his remarks Mel Larsen talked about two groups of activists who came out to hearings to protest not being included in ELCRA. One, the disabilities community, has since been addressed by legislation both nationally and statewide, while the other, the gay or LGBT community, has not.

When asked afterwards, MDCR Director Krichbaum said that there has been legislation introduced by Ann Arbor Senator Rebekah Warren for several sessions, and MDCR is committed to conducting hearings on the issue.

The Michigan Legal Milestones Program recognizes significant cases, events and personalities in Michigan history, overseen by a committee co-chaired by Jeffrey Paulsen and Margaret Krasnoff.