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The political pioneer who gave Michigan's civil rights law its name

Mar 10, 2020

 

Many Michiganders have heard of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. It's been in the news most recently because of a petition drive to expand the law's protections to members of the LGBTQ community. But while Elliott-Larsen is a well-known piece of legislation, few of us know much about the people who gave the law its name. One of those people was Daisy Elliott.

Jillian Reese is Curator of Exhibits at the Michigan History Center. After the 2018 midterm election, there was huge attention paid to the surge of women elected to political office. Reese said Elliott is the “foremother of this movement.” 

In 1960, Michigan voters approved a constitutional convention. Daisy Elliott, an African-American woman from Detroit, was one of 11 women elected as delegates. They were called “The Con-Con Eleven.”  The group was made up of five Democrats and six Republicans. They were the first, and only, women ever to participate in a constitutional convention in the state.

“This was the first constitutional convention in Michigan history where all the delegates weren’t white men,” Reese said. “So it was a very important constitution because for the first time we were really going to hear a diversity of voices with regards to gender and race.”

After serving as a delegate for the 1961-1962 constitutional convention, Elliott made a name for herself in Michigan politics. She took office as a state representative in 1963, and served for 18 years in the Michigan House. 

“She saw during this time bussing, the Detroit riots, racial inequalities, sort of the fall out of those things,” Reese explained. “So, she really thought that it was very important for Michigan to have some sort of law on the books that would protect the civil rights of Michiganders.”

And so, Elliott began work on a state civil rights law. Reese said that Elliott wanted the bill to be bipartisan, which was not an easy task to accomplish. It took her almost 10 years to find a Republican representative, Mel Larsen, to sign on as a co-sponsor. 

Many Republican politicians warned Larsen that signing on to the bill "would be political suicide.” To the contrary, Reese said, Larsen and Elliott's legacies lived on in the law that bears their name. The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act bars discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, and marital status. More importantly, Reese said, the law outlines real consequences for discriminatory actions. 

“It also gives folks a place to air their grievances, so they can go report this, and also provides a framework for compensating victims of discrimination. Without some teeth to legislation for it to be enforced, it can really be almost like a gesture.”

The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act was passed in 1976. Daisy Elliot passed away in 2015 at age 98. 

This post was written by Stateside production asssitant Catherine Nouhan.