Detroit Urban League honors civil rights giant Mel Larsen

Image 1 of 8

The Detroit Urban League is holding its Salute to Distinguished Warriors event tonight.

It recognizes those who have worked to build more inclusive community - no matter what the cost and tonight Huel Perkins introduces us to one of the five honorees.

Mel Larsen is best known for the role he played in Michigan's Civil Rights Act.

"It's a matter of being in the right place at the right time sometimes, and not being afraid to step out of the bell curve to do things that need to be done," Larsen said.

Larsen was elected to the Michigan State House of Representatives in 1973 and soon met a Democrat from Detroit.

"Daisy Elliott was a phenomenal person," he said.

Elliott had crafted a bill - modeled after the federal civil rights act. It prohibited discrimination in housing and employment based on race, religion, sex and other factors.

"At that time the Democrats dominated the legislature, but the problem was that many of those Democrats were white, suburban Democrats that just really did want to vote for a civil rights bill," he said.

It was the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Elliott struggled to get her measure passed - and was told she needed bipartisan support.

"She carried that bill around for about six years and couldn't get a Republican to sign on," Larsen said.

Things changed when Mel Larsen came to Lansing from Pontiac - where he had been a football coach, instructor and principal at a Catholic school.  He brought with him a deep belief.

"Discrimination is wrong," he said. "You don't have the right to discriminate against anybody."

Larsen co-sponsored Michigan's Civil Rights Act. Even though he was told it would end his political career.

"If you go into politics and your concern is getting re-elected, you should have never gotten into politics," Larsen said. "Because if there is an issue out there that needs to be handled, you should get in there and handle it.

"And I will say this - through the while civil rights thing, getting that passed, I never got one negative letter from a constituent - never," he said.  "Now think about that.  Never a one."

The act passed in 1976 and was originally to be named only for Elliott.  

"God love Daisy, they were going to name the bill after her," Larsen said. "And she came over to me and she said 'Mel, they said they want to put my name on this bill and I said only if you're name is on it too.'"

It speaks to statesmanship and compromise - something Larsen says we need more of.

"How do you get things done," he said. "You only get it done if you understand one very specific thing and that is (that) politics is the art of compromise."

Larsen has spent his life serving others and says he now finds great joy in mentoring the next generation of leaders. His sense of service comes from his faith - and from what he learned during his time at Notre Dame.

"It isn't about you," Larsen said. "And we all must understand in a very humble way that we only play a small part in moving the pendulum in our lifetime. But at least we should try to do that. To make it better place, than what we came into."

Larsen says he wants to be remembered as a good family man above all else - but he'll also be remembered as a positive person, who made our state a better place to live.

The one rule I've always had, is life should be fun," he said.  "You should see the humor and you should never hurt anyone. And if you do those two things it's a hell of a lot of fun."