Daisy Elliott, Detroiter behind civil rights law, dies
Daisy Elliott, an African-American civil rights advocate and former Michigan representative who helped push through a landmark law aimed at protecting against racial bias as well as other forms of discrimination, has died at age 98, friends and family announced late Tuesday.
The Detroiter spent 18 years with the Michigan House of Representatives, becoming “an effective and eloquent civil rights advocate, especially for workers, education, senior citizens, women, and minorities,” relatives said in a statement. But she perhaps was best known for authoring and co-sponsoring the historic Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
In 1962, the newly elected Democratic state representative from Detroit introduced the legislation aimed at outlawing many forms of discrimination.
“I had seen the unfairness and wanted a law that would do something about it,” Elliott told The Detroit News in 2003. “I would go to the library and look up the state constitution and noticed there was nothing in it about discrimination.”
Elliott eventually teamed with a white suburban Republican lawmaker, Mel Larsen, to work on securing the bill’s passage during a particularly turbulent time for racial minorities. Larsen, who represented the Oxford area at the time, was on the House’s civil rights committee, which Elliott chaired.
Larsen said Elliott deserves the most credit for the law’s passage since she believed bipartisan support was essential. He decided to get involved after reading the legislation despite warnings from others that such a move would be “political suicide.”
“Daisy was a real motivating force and driver of that legislation,” Larsen said in an interview Wednesday. “She was a heck of a role model for those who were in the civil rights movement at that time — and out front.”
“If it wasn’t for her, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now,” Larsen added.
Passed in 1976 and patterned after federal law, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, ethnicity, gender, age, marital status, height, weight, arrest record or physical or mental disabilities.
After the bill passed, legislative leaders wanted to put Elliott’s name on the new law. “She came walking down the Republican aisle to me and said ‘Mel they want to put my name on the bill. I told them only if they put yours on, too,’” Larsen recalled.
It was a “very generous” display of bipartisanship, Larsen said. “That was one of the most selfless, kindest things a legislator could do, especially by someone on the other side,” said Larsen, who lives in Birmingham. “I’m humbled by the fact that she did it.”
The State Bar of Michigan commemorated the legislation as a Michigan Legal Milestone in 2012.
Because of Elliott’s work, many people “owe her a great debt,” said Barbara-Rose Collins, a former congresswoman, state representative and Detroit City Councilwoman. “She created changes in this state that last today.”
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan described her as “a leader in the battle for civil rights and equality in Michigan. She spoke out against discrimination. She stood up for what was right. Even though it wasn’t necessarily the popular thing to do at the time, she did it because it was the right thing to do. We are proud that such a champion chose to call Detroit her home. Our thoughts are with her family.”
Elliott also was a co-author of the 1963 state constitution, which created the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and made a proposal aimed at creating an intermediate appellate court, which led to the establishment of the Michigan Court of Appeals. Elliott was a Democratic delegate to the 1961-1962 Constitutional Convention, according to her biography in the 1977-78 Michigan Manual.
Elliott chaired two committees in the House of Representatives as well as helped form the Legislative Black Caucus in the 1970s. She was the first woman to chair the House’s labor committee.
Among her honors, Elliott was lauded as a pioneer during the Michigan Women’s Political Caucus 2001 Millie Awards Ceremony.
“Our family holds dear her legacy, which includes extraordinary contributions to the state of Michigan and the nation,” Badriyyah Sabree, Elliott’s granddaughter, said in a statement Tuesday. “While we mourn the loss of this marvelous woman, we also celebrate her extraordinary life and hope that it serves as an example to people around the world to selflessly work to ensure all people are provided rights to full legal, social and economic equality.”
For years, Elliott was devoted to the civil rights movement and befriended legends in the field such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, said Barbara Jean Johnson, a longtime family friend who confirmed her death Tuesday.
The state representative formerly of West Virginia “served as a mentor to many people — to myself and many other young ladies,” Johnson said. “She encouraged us to go as far as we could, to reach for the stars.”
Elliott also left her mark on other lawmakers. Collins recalled her as a “tigress” when debating labor-related bills on the House floor.
“I always remember her saying: ‘You vote the way you want to but you ought to vote right and listen to your conscience and vote for this bill,’ ” Collins said. “That’s how she would end her debate. I think it carried a lot of weight. ... She was a fighter for labor issues, for working men and women.”
Gov. Rick Snyder praised the legacy and her two decades of elective service in a statement Wednesday.
“Daisy Elliott dedicated her life to fighting for equality,” Snyder said. “She showed tremendous leadership during challenging times, tirelessly working to end discrimination.
“Rep. Elliott knew that Michigan would be a better place if all people were treated fairly. And because of her, we are a better place, even as we continue to discuss new ways to bring us together rather than keep us apart. That is a proud legacy.”
Besides her granddaughter, other survivors include three great-grandchildren Aliyah, Adam and Yusuf.
Visitation is scheduled from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday at James H. Cole Home for Funerals, 2624 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.
Services are 11 a.m. Monday at People’s Community Church, 8601 Woodward, Detroit. Family hour starts at 10 a.m. Burial is at the city’s Woodlawn Cemetery.
Memorials may be made to the Daisy Elliott Civil Rights Foundation, 7650 Second Avenue, Suite 108, Detroit, MI 48202.