Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1917: Civil rights legend Daisy Elliott was born

By: - November 26, 2021 4:18 am

Elliott-Larsen Building, Lansing | Susan J. Demas

On Nov. 26, 1917, Daisy Elliott was born in Filbert, W.V. The Democrat would go on to co-sponsor seminal civil rights legislation in Michigan.

Like many, she later moved to Detroit during the Great Migration, a period between 1914 and 1950 when African Americans from the South moved to the Motor City seeking improved employment and housing opportunities.

Elliott served as an elected member of the Michigan Constitutional Convention of 1961 and 1962, a 144-member body that revised the state governing document for the first time since 1908.

Daisy Elliott | Ken Coleman photo collection

In December 1961, Elliott along with Lillian Hatcher and Coleman A. Young submitted Proposal No. 1522 and 1523 to their Michigan Constitutional Convention colleagues, according to the late Sidney Fine, author of “Expanding the Frontiers of Civil Rights: Michigan, 1948-1968.” 

Proposal No.1522 provided for 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.”

Proposal No.1523 prescribed how the commission should be constituted and the procedures that it is to follow in exercising its authority. Both proposals were later adopted by convention members, approved by state voters on April 1, 1963, and became a significant set of provisions included in the Michigan Constitution.

The Detroit Institute of Commerce graduate later served in the Michigan House of Representatives from 1963 to 1978 and then 1981 to 1982.

She is best known for her co-sponsorship of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976. She partnered with Mel Larsen, an Oakland County Republican, in that effort. The measure banned discrimination statewide in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on religion, race, national origin, age, sex, and other factors.

After being convicted on charges of driving a stolen Cadillac that she purchased, Elliott served a 60-day sentence in Ingham County Jail in 1985. She maintained that she did not know that the car was stolen when she purchased it and suggested that “racial and political motives” were at play.

“People in the district know what it’s all about,” said Elliott in 1982. “They know that I would not do anything that would embarrass them or discredit myself … all I want is justice.”

Elliott died on Dec. 22, 2015, at age 98.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced in 2020 that the Lewis Cass building in Lansing would be renamed in Elliott’s and Larsen’s honor.

“Moving forward, we must continue to honor those who have worked to build a stronger Michigan for everyone, regardless of race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, and gender identity,” said Whitmer at the time. “Of course, our work to expand civil rights in Michigan is not done. It’s time for the legislature to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect members of the LGBTQ+ community and make Michigan a state where more people want to move to for opportunity.”

Badriyyah Sabree, Elliott’s granddaughter, applauded Whitmer’s action. “We hope that the citizens of this great state will join us in honoring Daisy by keeping the fight for justice and equity alive until justice and equity is a reality for all people,” said Sabree. 

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history 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.