As the fight for equal protection under the law continues across America, Michigan is honoring two of its own civil rights pioneers.
In 1976, State Representatives Daisy Elliott, a Black Democrat from Detroit, and Melvin Larsen, a White Republican from suburban Oakland County crafted a landmark civil rights law that today bears their names.
On Tuesday, Governor Gretchen Whitmer renamed a state office complex as the “Elliott-Larsen Building.”
WKAR’s Kevin Lavery spoke with Melvin Larsen about his colleague and their legacy.
Partners For Change
Whitmer’s executive order re-names the former Lewis Cass Building in downtown Lansing as the Elliott-Larsen Building. Melvin Larsen credits his former colleague with the honor.
“She was truly a civil rights mover and shaker, and it was her effort to get the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act passed,” Larsen explains. “And I’m grateful to the governor, who I think is truly a civil rights governor.”
In the beginning, Daisy Elliott fostered a vision for a more equitable civil rights landscape in Michigan. But she needed a colleague from across the aisle to help carry the water. It took years for that to happen.
"After the 1964 federal legislation, Daisy Elliott been carrying around a similar bill and trying to get introduced,” says Larsen. “The Democrats, who had many suburban white districts at that time, really didn't want to pass it on a single party vote. They told her that she had to find a Republican co-sponsor before she could introduce it. I got there in 1973. Then it took another four years to work through the legislature.”
But why was Larsen the right man to take up the mantle?
“I was the only Republican that would sign on…and wanted to,” he says. “I had my own strong beliefs about civil rights; that everybody should be treated fairly. You don't have a right to discriminate against anyone. You can have all the biases you want, but you don't have a right to act them out.”
Far From Finished
Daisy Elliott died in 2015.
The civil rights struggle continues today, freshly fueled by the killings of people like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.
Larsen ponders how his work would turn out if he and Elliott wrote their bill in 2020.
“We would have sexual orientation and gender identity in the civil rights act. No question about that,” he says. “There's much more that needs to be done to bring equity, which is a little different than equality.”
Melvin Larsen says you don’t have to take his word for it.
“All you have to do is look in the streets and see what's going on there,” he says.