By Shoham Geva, Summer Managing News Editor
Published April 23, 2014
The Michigan Department of Civil Rights hosted a luncheon and panel at the Trotter Multicultural Center Wednesday in honor of former University professor Albert Wheeler as the final stop of the year in their 50th anniversary tour.
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Wheeler, who passed away in 1994, was the first African American tenured professor at the University and the first African American mayor of Ann Arbor. He was instrumental in the creation of the MDCR in 1965, and was also a prominent civil rights advocate on state and local levels.
Two of Wheeler’s daughters attended the event and accepted an honorary commendation from the department for their father. Former state legislator Alma Wheeler said her father’s perseverance despite facing professional difficulties is one of the hallmarks of his legacy.
“People kept saying to him ‘If you just stopped rocking the boat, Al, you would get this professorship,’ ” Wheeler said. “But he said, ‘I’ve got too many things to get done, too many issues to work with in the community. And I need to make a better world for my girls.’ ”
Wheeler said on campus, her father’s presence as a faculty member on many issues, including his involvement with the Black Action Movement protests 1 and 2 in the 1970s, helped support student activism in a way that wasn’t happening before.
“He inspired many young people to exercise their right to speak and not be fearful that they would be alone,” Wheeler said. “I think he had a very important role in the faculty in relation to students.”
Leslee Fritz, deputy director of the department, said it was a natural choice to celebrate Wheeler at their Ann Arbor stop.
“There’s a great history here in Ann Arbor of progressive leadership and advancing the cause of equality for all people, and Albert Wheeler — the entire Wheeler family — really embodies that,” Fritz said.
The event also featured a panel discussion on current civil rights challenges locally and nationally. University Regent Mark Bernstein (D–Ann Arbor); John Seto, Chief of the Ann Arbor Police Department; Jazz Parks, Tappan Middle School principal; and Andre Wilson, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, all spoke on the panel.
As the department celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, the focus is on planning ahead just as much as retrospection, Fritz said.
“At all of these city events that we’ve done, we’ve talked about the future, about where public policy needs to go in the area of civil rights, what kind of issues communities are struggling with, how we as the Department of Civil Rights can play a helpful role,” Fritz said. “So it’s certainly a moment to stop and reflect upon where we’ve been, but even more importantly, to talk about where we’re going.”
The panelists identified issues varying from discriminatory hiring practices to diverse campus populations as their civil rights concerns heading into the future.
Bernstein, who started off by speaking about Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision to uphold the state of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action, said one challenge faced at the University is how to redefine approaches to building a diverse campus population.
“This is the end of the road,” Bernstein said. “The debate on whether or not we can do affirmative action, whether it involves race or gender in Michigan, is over. We now have to turn to other less effective tools, but tools that we need to use nevertheless, whether it be socioeconomic status, geography, first generation to go to college, other ways to think about diversity and the perspective a particular student brings to our campus and to our classrooms. It’s a very important moment on our campus.”
Seto said, in the broader Ann Arbor community, one of his concerns was what flies under the radar.
“We don’t even know what we don’t know,” Seto said. “There are issues that are out there that do not make it to the attention of community leaders like myself, and I think that’s one of the things we challenge. How do we encourage, how do we solicit that kind of information?”
Wheeler’s legacy was a frequent theme within the discussion, with several audience members and panelists lauding his commitment to the causes he advocated for.
As the department wraps up their tour, Fritz said one of the highlights has been celebrating individuals like Wheeler.
“There’s tremendous stories of leadership, of perseverance, of commitment and determination in communities across the state,” Fritz said. “It’s been a great learning experience for all of us, to remind us of what remarkable leaders Michigan has been blessed with, and to re-energize all of us who are serving that role today to try to do a little bit more.”