Growing up in a small Iowa farming town, longtime Birmingham resident Mel Larsen learned the importance of community. After graduating from University of Notre Dame in the late 1950s, he brought his strong desire to serve the community to the Detroit area by working in Catholic schools as a teacher, coach, and principal. His determination to serve led him into politics where he has left a lasting legacy on Michigan’s civil rights movement.
“Faith, family, community have been the center of my life and I’ve tried to give back and serve. There are many ways to serve your community and make it a better place – I chose education, social services, and civil rights,” said Larsen.
Larsen served as a member of the Michigan State House of Representatives in Oxford from 1973-1978, and chairman of the Michigan Republican Party from 1979-1983. He helped sponsor the landmark Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 with Daisy Elliot, a Democrat from Detroit. The law prohibits discrimination in Michigan based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status in employment, housing, education, and access to public accommodations.
“The bill was introduced after the federal Civil Rights Law passed in 1964. Daisy was the driving force and was told by House Democrats that she would need a Republican co-sponsor for it to pass. She carried around the bill for years. I was six weeks into the legislature when I read the bill and said, ‘This needs to be done – let’s do it.’ After it passed, they wanted to name the bill after her and in the greatest act of statesmanship, she came down the aisle and said she wanted my name on the bill too,” said Larsen. “Today, how far apart we are – there is still a long way to go. With information on the internet today, people need to fact check and ask themselves ‘How do I know what I know?’”
According to Larsen, the original intent of the Civil Rights Act was to include all Michigan citizens and should be expanded to include the LGBTQ community.
“I still stand firm that every citizen in this state deserves the right to protection. I’ve taken a lot of flak over the years, but remain passionate. Discrimination is wrong. When people act out biases, it’s not fair. There’s still a lot of work to do and we can’t give up on it. It will happen. We are like water drifting on a rock – not going away.”
Last fall, the two Michigan civil rights pioneers were commended by the state when the Lewis Cass Building in Lansing was renamed the Elliot-Larsen Building. Larsen values the legacy for his family and feels honored to have his name alongside Elliot’s again. Unfortunately, Elliot died in 2015. She is the first Black woman in Michigan to have a state building named in her honor.
According to Larsen, while we have made a lot of progress, there is still more to achieve in terms of equity and in fighting discrimination. He identified three ongoing problems that still need to be addressed – finance, health, and families.
Through his years in education, politics and business, Larsen has been supported by his family and especially his wife, Liz. “She’s a wonderful person. It was fortunate for me to match up with someone who believes in what she’s doing as much as I do.”
Larsen offered some closing guidance. “There’s an old saying I like, ‘Believe in your own dignity and extend that dignity to everyone you meet.’”
Story: Tracy Donohue
Photo: Laurie Tennent