Ken Coleman: Frank J. Kelley’s fight for civil rights won’t be forgotten

March 11, 2021 7:21 am

Frank J. Kelley campaigning for U.S. Senate in 1972 | Detroit News Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University photo

Michiganders are fortunate that Frank J. Kelley came our way.

The state’s longest-serving state attorney general died at age 96 on Saturday. He served in the post from 1961 to 1999 and his philosophy was centered on helping everyday people like me. 

I’m reminded that Kelley grew up in a solid brick home at 8957 N. Martindale St. near Grand River Avenue on Detroit’s west side during the 1930s and ‘40s. It is the same block where my father, Kenneth Coleman Sr., grew during the 1950s and ‘60s. It is several doors down from where I lived during some of my first months on the planet.  

Talk about a small world.

The son of an Irish Catholic Democratic Party local leader and tavern owner, Frank E. Kelley, the late attorney general was a champion of civil rights, as well as environmental and consumer protection during his record 37 years in the post. In fact, his biographer, Jack Lessenberry, told me on Saturday that Kelley essentially redefined the position.

Life was tough for Black folk when Frank J. Kelley was appointed the state’s top law enforcement officer in 1961 at age 36. Simply put, African Americans were catching hell.

That year, metro Detroit’s WCHB-AM held a radiothon effort to raise money for Tennessee sharecroppers who had been evicted from their homes in Fayette and Haywood counties. The radio station was owned by Haley Bell, a dentist who was born in Georgia and moved to the Motor City in 1923 during the Great Migration, and his son-in-law, Wendell Cox. 

“Those 400 or so Negro farmers simply wanted to exercise their rights, as American citizens, to vote. As a result, they have become helpless victims of seemingly a well-organized economic squeeze,” Bell and Cox said in a joint statement published by the Detroit Tribune, a Black newspaper, on February 25, 1961.

It was also the year that Democrats Lillian Hatcher, Daisy Elliott and Coleman A. Young submitted to their Michigan Constitutional Convention colleagues a proposal to create a civil rights commission with “enforcement powers to eliminate discrimination and segregation based on race, religion, color, national origin or ancestry in employment, housing, education, public accommodations and other such rights, privileges or immunities as are guaranteed under this Constitution.” 

The measure would ultimately be adopted by the 144-member body of Democrats and Republicans, approved by state voters and included in the Michigan Constitution of 1963, a guiding document that gave Kelley’s vision for Michigan even more teeth.

During his historic tenure as state attorney general, Kelley led the way in helping to uphold the federal and state legislation that Blacks and whites fought for during the 1950s and ‘60s. They were men and women who showed tremendous courage in Southern states, which had routinely carried out Jim Crow laws that deemed Black folk as second-class citizens. Many of them were teenagers and college students from the North who traveled to the deep South and fought to desegregate white-only lunch counters and to register Blacks to vote, some of whom cast ballots for the first time in their lives.

Today, far too many poor people who live in food deserts don’t have to put up with store owners who sell them rotten meat, near-spoiled fruit and drug paraphernalia. That’s because Kelley was the first attorney general in the nation to establish a Consumer Protection, Criminal Fraud and Environmental Protection division. 

The Frank J. Kelley Walkway between the Michigan Capitol and Hall of Justice, March 22, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Today, when Blacks and Browns are steered away from apartments or homes simply because of their race or skin color, they have recourse. Today, when people who look like me are victims of ethnic intimidation and voter suppression, they have state law that he advocated for, on their side. 

That is the legacy of Frank J. Kelley, the man known affectionately as the “eternal general.”

As a young reporter, I interviewed him on several occasions. He was always approachable and never displayed arrogance. To be sure, I am fortunate to have lived during his tenure and more importantly, to have benefitted from his interpretation of the law and his genuine care for everyday people in Michigan.

“Now, what I’d like to say to all those in generations after mine is: It’s your turn. Your turn to begin and, this time, do it better,” Kelley wrote in his autobiography, “The People’s Lawyer: The Life and Times of Frank J. Kelley, the Nation’s Longest-Serving Attorney General.”

As a fellow former Martindale Street resident, I say farewell to Frank J. Kelley, who made life in Michigan better in many ways.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.