Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
Michigan and Civil Rights
In the 1960s, the closed fist became a symbol of black power and civil rights. Well, open up that fist and you've got another symbol often associated with civil rights: the shape of Michigan. Michigan, everyone's favorite hand-shaped state, has a long history of dealing with civil rights.
Race in 19th-century Michigan
When Michigan became a state in 1837, the issue of race was becoming pretty important in American society. The country had decided that states in the north would not allow slavery, so that wasn't a question for Michigan, but the role of free blacks in society was. Michigan didn't grant African Americans the right to vote, but did offer them a greater degree of social freedom than in many states.
As a result, Michigan developed a reputation for being a place that was relatively friendly towards African Americans. It became a major destination of the Underground Railroad, and the population of both fugitive slaves and free blacks in Michigan increased rapidly over the next few decades.
Of course, life was far from perfect. In major cities, notably Detroit, the growing number of African Americans led white citizens and immigrants to worry that black workers would steal their jobs. This fear was heightened during the Civil War by the Emancipation Proclamation, and tensions boiled over into the Detroit Race Riot of 1863. A mob targeting black businesses and citizens cut a destructive path through Detroit.
After the Civil War ended, Michigan's state government tried to demonstrate solidarity with the pro-equality sentiments of Washington's Republicans. In 1867, Michigan became one of the first states to voluntarily ban segregation of public schools (although the city of Detroit resisted integration). In 1883, Michigan removed the last state-sanctioned discriminatory law from its books by dropping the ban on interracial marriage. In 1885, the state passed its own Civil Rights Act, prohibiting discrimination. While a definitive win for civil rights, in theory, the law ended up very unevenly enforced across the state.
Civil Rights of the 20th Century
The early 20th century saw an entrenchment of segregationist policies across the United States, particularly in major urban centers, and Detroit was no exception. The city's reputation as an industrial powerhouse inspired African Americans across the country to migrate to Detroit, looking for work. Just as had happened in the Civil War, the competition for jobs resulted in tensions that boiled over into violence during World War II. The Detroit Race Riot of 1943 left over 30 people dead and over 400 wounded, and had to be broken up with federal troops.
After World War II ended, black workers in Michigan often found themselves pushed out of jobs in order to make room for white GIs. They were also further segregated into inner cities and denied opportunities to move into the suburbs.
The state recognized that civil rights issues needed to be addressed in a consistent and efficient way. In 1962, Michigan opened a constitutional convention to draft a new state constitution. One of the provisions worked into this draft was the creation of an independent bureau called the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. Inaugurated with the adoption of the new constitution in 1964, the MCRC was designed to investigate issues of discrimination within the state.
So, that was it, right? Michigan resolved all of its civil rights issues? Not quite. Just three years later, another race riot erupted in Detroit. Motivated by tensions over housing and limited job opportunities, the Detroit Race Riot of 1967 was the most destructive one yet, leaving 43 people dead, over 1,100 injured, and destroying 2,000 buildings.
The Detroit riot was one of the several riots which occurred that summer, prompting President Lyndon B. Johnson to create the Kerner Commission, a body tasked with figuring out why destructive race riots like the one in Detroit were occurring, as well as how to fix the underlying problems. The Commission identified a lack of economic opportunities for urban African Americans as the root issue, something that was confirmed in Detroit.
Michigan continued to struggle with civil rights issues just as the federal government did. In 1974, the Supreme Court heard the case of Milliken v. Bradley, in which Detroit's school systems were accused of maintaining racial segregation through their busing policies. Nearly all of the city's white residents attended school in the suburbs, but black children had no access to these schools through public busing. Ultimately, the courts found that the school districts were not intentionally promoting segregation in not providing buses to children from other districts, and therefore the policies were not illegal.
Partly as a result, Michigan lawmakers again recognized the need for a firmer stance on civil rights. The result was the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, which banned discrimination of any kind in employment, housing, and access to public services. It also strengthened the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, doubling down on the state's efforts to address civil rights issues. The act was later expanded to specifically include LGBTQ rights as well. There are still lots of work to do in promoting and protecting civil rights in Michigan, but the Elliot-Larsen Act was certainly a step in that direction.
Michigan has a long history with civil right issues. The state dealt with race riots as early as 1863, a result of tensions over jobs in industrial centers like Detroit. Despite official efforts to ban segregation, discriminatory policies persisted into the 20th century, leading to another race riot in 1943. There were issues that needed to be addressed, so Michigan created the Michigan Civil Rights Commission as part of their new constitution of 1963. The commission placed more focus on civil rights, but tension still boiled over in the Detroit Race Riot of 1967, one of several riots that summer which prompted the Kerner Commission. Finally, Michigan passed the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to take an even firmer stance on civil rights. There are still lots to do, but Michigan was well on its way.
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