The State of Michigan is celebrating a milestone this year. Half a century ago, the state became the first in the nation to establish a Civil Rights Commission. The commission was approved by voters as part of Michigan’s new constitution in 1963. It was a year of unprecedented civil rights activity; George Wallace took office in Alabama, Medger Evers was assassinated in Mississippi and in Washington DC, Martin Luther King Jr. declared to America: I Have a Dream.
Leslee Fritz, Interim Executive Director of the State Department of Civil Rights said the constitutional delegates decided they needed to do more than just make a statement within the constitution declaring ‘all men are created equal’. She says they felt they needed to create an entity to ensure that civil rights were protected in Michigan, “ And as a result of that forward thinking, that progressive thinking and frankly the courage that it took to put that in the constitution, because in those days it was not only bold policy, it could also be dangerous policy. As a result of that, Michigan has been a progressive leader on civil rights ever since.”
Fritz says the Civil Rights Department tackles a number of issues today. A far cry from when it was launched, with a focus on racial conflict, “ the civil rights umbrella captures so much more of what’s happening in our communities than just that. We deal with disability rights and access for people who may be disabled. We have a vast, changing multi-cultural society that encompasses different religions, different cultures, different ethnicities, and all of that falls under the work we do helping people to learn to live and work and learn and play together in a way that is healthy and productive despite the fact that we’re all different in where we come from and what we believe and how we practice those beliefs.
As you can imagine, things change a great deal in 50-years. Fritz says a major factor in civil rights issues today is technology, things like the internet and social media.Things organizers didn’t even consider in 1963. Fritz says technology can be a curse or a blessing, “certainly technology affords greater access to people who may have physical or mental limitations. Whether it’s adaptive technology that makes somebody who may be either hard of hearing or limited in sight able to be better able to participate in a classroom or a workplace setting, technology can certainly be an aid. It also creates a forum on which people can express opinions of hate or bias or racial injustice. It affords a voice, a stronger voice for people who would perpetuate those kinds of opinions and create fear and uncertainty in our neighborhoods and our communities. So it can be a positive tools, it can certainly, if used inappropriately, be a negative one as well.”
Fritz says in celebration of the 50th anniversary, the Civil Rights Department is in the middle a multi-city tour of the state. Stops are scheduled into February for; Cheboygan, Flint and Grayling. The roadshow was launched this past spring. Fritz says the Department has plenty of time to celebrate, “ In ‘63, the constitution was voted on by citizens. It would have been early November 1963. So we could choose to celebrate our anniversary there, because that’s when the people spoke. The constitution took effect on January 1, 1964, so we could choose to celebrate it there. And then the first meeting of the Civil Rights commission was actually a few days later. So, we had a little trouble deciding what our actual anniversary should be, which is part of the reason we decided to do it for a whole year.”
Fritz says work the Civil Rights Department does do is so predicated on relationships with individuals and organizations throughout the state that the tour is a great opportunity for department officials to renew old relationships and build new ones to promote individual rights in Michigan