Whitmer renames Lansing building in part after Black lawmaker

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has renamed a state-owned building in downtown Lansing after the legislative sponsors of Michigan's civil rights law and has for the first time in state history honored an African American woman on a state structure.

By executive order, Whitmer renamed the Lewis Cass Building in downtown Lansing the “Elliott-Larsen Building” in honor of Republican state Rep. Melvin Larsen and Democratic state Rep. Daisy Elliott's 1976 proposal that then-Gov. William Milliken signed into law in January 1977.

Whitmer on Tuesday also put her support behind replacing the statue of Cass that is one of two monuments representing Michigan in the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

That change, however, must be initiated by the Republican-controlled Legislature by resolution, with the new statue funded by the state.

"The governor is prepared to approve a fitting replacement if the Legislature is willing to act," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. 

Mel Larsen and Daisy Elliott.

The moves come after nearly a month of protests nationwide and around Michigan about police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death while being arrested by Minneapolis police officers on May 25. Whitmer said she renamed the building to reflect the "shared values" of Michiganians. 

"Together, Melvin Larsen and Daisy Elliott’s names have become synonymous in Michigan with the protection of civil rights,” Whitmer said in a statement. "... We must hold up those who worked to build a better Michigan for us all, regardless of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity."

The Democratic governor reiterated her call on the Legislature to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect members of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The expansion has been debated in the state Capitol during the past decade as Republican legislative leaders have argued they wanted to ban discrimination, but only as long as it would not infringe on religious rights.

Cass was the second governor of the Michigan territory and served in the Cabinet of presidents Andrew Jackson and James Buchanan. He was the Democratic Party's presidential nominee in 1848 but lost to Zachary Taylor. 

Cass has become more controversial over the years because he owned at least one slave and implemented the Indian Removal Act as secretary of war under Jackson. His support as a presidential candidate of letting the citizens of territories decide whether to adopt slavery caused a fissure in the Democratic Party.

"No one can deny the important role that Lewis Cass played in Michigan’s and the nation’s early history," Whitmer's office said.

But her office noted that Cass owned a slave, "defended a system that would permit the expansion of slavery" and helped to forcibly remove "Native communities from their tribal lands."

The renaming of the building "is a small, but meaningful step forward as we seek to better express our shared values," Whitmer's office said.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer decided to rename the Lewis Cass State Office Building after the legislators who proposed the state's landmark civil rights law known as the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

“The family of Daisy Elliott is honored and grateful to the State of Michigan for acknowledging the contributions of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act,” Badriyyah Sabree, granddaughter of Daisy Elliott, said in a statement provided by the Governor's Office.

Larsen said he is "humbled and thrilled" by the honor, adding in a statement through Whitmer's office that he gives "all credit to Daisy who initiated working together to sponsor the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act." 

Michigan Senate Democrats late Tuesday also called for the removal of Cass' statue from the National Statuary Hall collection in the U.S. Capitol. Each state is allowed two statues within the Capitol, and Michigan's contributions include Cass and President Gerald R. Ford. 

“Those who are chosen to represent our great state in the hallowed space of Statuary Hall should embody the very best of our history, society and ideals. A former slave owner is not that,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint, in a statement.