Special To The New Citizens Press
The history of civil rights in Michigan is a narration of our state’s struggle to mature and reach its full potential. Documenting and reflecting on that history is as vital as a child marking notches on a wall to chart the progress of growth.
Created by the Michigan Constitution of 1963, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) represents a most significant notch for the struggle to realize equal opportunity and embrace a diverse world. The Constitution charged the eight-member, nonpartisan Commission with investigating alleged discrimination against any person because of race, color, religion or national origin, and securing “the equal protection of such civil rights without such discrimination.”
Public Acts 453 and 220 of 1976 further charged the Commission and its staff complement, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR), with protecting against discrimination based on sex, age, martial status, height, weight, arrest record and physical and mental disabilities in the areas of employment, education, housing, public accommodations and public service.
Since 1964, a total of 55 commissioners have presided over several decisions and initiatives that helped to improve the civil rights landscape of the state. Today, both the Commission and Department stand at the ready to continue that tradition.
The current MDCR director, Linda Parker, took over in December of 2003 following the retirement of Dr. Nanette Lee Reynolds, who held the post for ten years. Prior to joining MDCR, Parker was a partner at the Detroit law firm of Dickinson Wright PLC, where she practiced environmental law and served on the Recruitment Committee to diversify the firm. Parker said that her work with the Commission and as MDCR director has reinforced an already strong commitment to civil rights and social justice.
“Working with the Commission this past year has been an exhilarating and challenging experience, as we’ve triumphed in some areas and lost ground in others,” said Parker. “I am both proud and humbled by the way that the Commission and the Department has maintained a vigilance and commitment to the elimination of discrimination throughout Michigan.”
Kary L. Moss, Executive Director of the ACLU of Michigan, said the importance of the role MDCR plays in the daily life of the states’ citizens couldn’t be over stated.
“It is often the only place that a victim of discrimination can go to for help. Without the MDCR, the state’s anti-discrimination law would be only a paper document,” she said.
Moss, also praised Parker for her personal and professional commitment to social and racial justice.
“I was thrilled when the Governor appointed Linda Parker to head the agency. Linda has been a staunch civil rights advocate throughout her career. She led an effort to put the right against racial profiling, for example, at the top of the agenda of the law enforcement community when she was at the Justice Department,’’ she said.
“She is providing vision and direction to the agency and will position it so that it can meet the needs of Michigan citizens for generations to come.”
Like Parker, MCRC Chair Valerie Simmons possesses an extensive background in law, and said that serving with the Commission to fight for civil rights was a natural extension of her work as a defense attorney.
“It brings me great satisfaction to see that the system does work, and to see that people’s rights can be vindicated,” she said. “The Commission’s proactive stance allows us to use education to prevent future infringements and broad coalitional planning to consider how upcoming issues will affect civil rights. We look ahead to see what the help should be.”
As an administrative agency charged with enforcing the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and the Persons With Disabilities Civil Rights Act, a major role of the Department is the hands-on investigation of civil rights complaints. The Department presses for resolution at every stage in the investigation and offers mediation services to allow parties to settle allegations outside the investigation process. If the Department determines that it can show illegal discrimination has occurred, the case is then argued before a hearing referee and finally the Commission itself. The Commission is authorized to order corrective action, including financial restitution and policy changes. Either party may appeal commission decisions in court.
Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm praised the Commission for its commitment to equality and its work over the past four decades.
“I share this Commission’s vision of a state where people are respected for their differences, yet, ultimately appreciated as being partners in making this the best state to live in, in the best country in the world,’’ she said.
In addition to decisions on civil rights complaints, the Commission also holds public hearings, adopts reports, and issues opinions on civil rights related matters. During 2004 the Commission issued resolutions voicing opposition to the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative designed to ban affirmative action and Proposal 2, which banned same sex marriages in Michigan.
Simmons said that it isn’t the Commission’s intent to persuade voters to lean to a particular side of an issue, but rather to inform.
“Part of the Commission’s work is not to tell people how to vote, but to make sure they understand what they’re voting for or against,” Simmons said. “That includes advising how certain pieces of legislation will harm civil rights.”
MCRC Vice Chair Mark Bernstein pointed to the Commission’s diverse views and ideologies that enable them to better understand complex issues involving civil rights, and serve as a vital conduit to the various communities in Michigan.
“The Commission has a responsibility to keep civil rights issues at the top of the public agenda and be visible on those issues,” said Bernstein. “The Commission also provides an important venue for the public to have a voice in discussing those issues.”
Historic examples of the MCRC’s public hearing function include those conducted in 1983 on rental and housing practices, leading to the Commission confirming widespread housing discrimination throughout the state and offering recommendations for alleviating that discrimination. Public hearings held in 2004 included: An April hearing on racial and ethnic intolerance held at the Holocaust Museum in Farmington Hills; A May hearing on segregation and the impact of Brown vs Board of Education at the African American History Museum in Detroit; And a November hearing in Dearborn regarding the concerns of Arab Americans within that community.
Bernstein recalled that particular meeting as an “incredibly powerful” one that took into account topics outside the realm of civil rights that were of great importance to those in attendance.
“Their concerns were raised in the context of traditional civil rights matters, but we also touched on issues indirectly that don’t involve civil rights matters, like immigration and the Patriot Act,” Bernstein said. “Their community sees these issues through the civil rights lens.”
Beyond its 40th anniversary, celebrated last year, the MCRC is preparing to face an anti-affirmative attempt – namely the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative * whose supporters recently gathered enough signatures to place a ban against affirmative action on the 2006 ballot.
Simmons believes that the proposed ban will not benefit any specific group, but instead will further undermine civil rights in the state.
“We need to be expanding civil rights, not them taking-away,” she said. “If this initiative passes, it will be a license to turn back the clocks on all of the advances that our parents and grandparents have worked for.”
Echoing Simmons’ sentiment, Bernstein said, “We can’t afford to be silent on this issue. There’s too much at stake.”
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission
Chair: Valerie P. Simmons, J.D.
Residence: Grand Rapids
Appointed: January 1998
Occupation: Attorney, partner with Warner, Norcross and Judd, specializing in litigation and health law
Affiliations: Board of directors for the Grand Rapids Service Corps, Inc., Ronald McDonald House of Western Michigan, and Nurses Unlimited
Vice Chair: Mark Bernstein, J.D.
Residence: Ann Arbor
Occupation: Attorney, Law Offices of Sam Bernstein
Prior Occupations: Director of Press Pool Operations in the White House during the Clinton administration and associate in the Real Estate Investment Banking Group for Citigroup Global Markets
Honors: Recipient of the University of Michigan Center for Disability Concerns Certificate of Appreciation Award
Affiliations: Chairperson of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation and advisory board member of Jewish Family Services
Secretary: Mohammed Abdrabooh, J.D.
Appointed: May 2003
Occupation: Attorney representing victims of racial profiling and discrimination
Honors: The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) Pro Bono Attorney of the Year award for 2002.
Affiliations: Board member to the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), chairman of the ADC advisory board and legal advisor to ADC; board member for the State of Michigan ACLU and advisory board member at the University of Toledo Law School
Treasurer: Margaret M. Van Houten, J.D.
Residence: Dearborn Heights
Appointed: January 2003
Occupation: Attorney for Evans & Luptak, PLC, specializing in commercial litigation, probate and estate planning
Prior Occupations: Law clerk for Judge Brian K. Zahra in the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Third Circuit Court
Affiliations: Dearborn Heights City Council member, Chair of the Wayne County Republican Committee and Chair of the Wayne 15th Congressional District Republican Committee
Commissioner: Albert Calille, J.D.
Appointed: January 1998
Occupation: Legal counsel for Ameritech, specializing in labor, employment, and benefits issues
Affiliations: The Detroit Bar Association, the Michigan Bar Association, the Federal (EEOC/Discrimination section) Bar Association and the American Bar Association
Commissioner: Dr. Tarun K. Sharma
Appointed: June 2001
Occupation: Gastroenterologist. Graduate of the medical college of Himachal Pradesh University in Simla, India.
Commissioner: Kelvin W. Scott, J.D.
Appointed: September 2004
Occupation: Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary for Plastech Engineered Products, Inc.
Prior Occupations: Associate Corporate Counsel for Masco Corporation, a litigator with the firm of Kienbaum Opperwall Hardy and Pelton, an Assistant United States Attorney with the U.S. Attorneys office in the Eastern District of Michigan and an associate attorney and partner with the law firm Dickinson Wright
Commissioner: Matthew Wesaw
Appointed: September 2004
Occupation: Director of Government Relations for the Michigan State Police Troopers Association
Prior Occupations: Michigan State Police officer for 26 years, serving at the Jackson, Flat Rock, and Lansing posts before being promoted to Uniform Sergeant and later Detective Sergeant. Elected to the position of Vice President of the Michigan State Police Troopers Association (MSPTA) in 1995.
Affiliations: Tribal council member and past chairman of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians; member of the Nokomis Learning Center; past board member to the Lansing North American Indian Center; past chairman of the Commission on Indian Affairs; former appointee to the Michigan Community Service Commission.