WSU Law School alumnus and labor attorney Bruce Miller on his history of civil rights and labor rights advocacy

WSU Law School alumnus and labor attorney Bruce Miller on his history of civil rights and labor rights advocacy

Attorney and WSU Law School alumnus Bruce Miller joins the Today@Wayne Podcast to discuss his history of social justice activism and legal advocacy.

Show notes

Episode notes Legendary labor attorney and WSU Law School alumnus Bruce Miller joins Today@Wayne podcast host Darrell Dawsey for a lively look back on Miller’s decadeslong fight on behalf of civil rights, unions, and working people throughout metro Detroit and the nation.

About For decades, Bruce Miller has stood with the labor and civil rights movements as an activist, advisor and attorney. He was successful in establishing the right of retired workers to draw workers’ compensation benefits. He represented employees in a case against the Ex-Cell-O company that took 12 years to litigate and resulted in awards to the plaintiffs in excess of $3 million. He has been involved in litigation throughout the country on behalf of unions and worker rights. Miller has recently been appointed as general counsel for the Metro AFL-CIO.

In the fight for civil rights as attorney for the Detroit Branch NAACP, Miller was successful in protecting citizens from police abuse; caused the first agreement for goals and timetables at First Federal Savings and Loan Association, resulting in the first integration of the downtown banking community; outlawed the notorious Poindexter Homeowners’ Ordinance that was designed to segregate the city of Detroit; and won many other fights in the struggle for civil rights.

Additional resourcesLearn more about Bruce Miller and his law firm, Miller Cohen PLC Read about Bruce Miller’s longtime fight for justiceFollow Miller Cohen PLC on Facebook


Announcer: Welcome to Today at Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news, announcements, information and current event discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today at Wayne serves as the perfect forum for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey: Welcome to the Today at Wayne podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. As an attorney for the Labor Hall of Fame and general counsel for the Metro Detroit AFL-CIO in Detroit, attorney and Wayne State Law School alumnus Bruce Miller has spent nearly six decades earning a well-deserved reputation as a staunch advocate of workers' rights. Even as a student Miller found himself involved in the struggle for equal rights for all. As a high school student in Manhattan in your own 1940s, he formed the first interracial club in the school, the Brotherhood Club, after race riots broke out in the school lunch room. Miller went on to form the Interracial Youth Committee, an organization that's spread to many schools throughout New York City.

Darrell Dawsey: He remained true to that mission in his professional life as well. Along with his work for local labor unions, Miller has also worked with organizations like the NAACP and others, taking up fights against police brutality, gender discrimination, and racist employment practices. The pro-labor attorney has even taken unions themselves to task, winning one of the first affirmative action cases against the Laborers Union of Michigan many years ago. Now at age 93, Miller, one of the principles of law firm Miller Cohen PLC, continues to burnish that reputation. His firm has become one of the preeminent civil rights and employment firms in Michigan, and he's joined these days by son Powell in continuing that fight to right wrongs. And we're happy to have him here with us on the Today at Wayne podcast. Welcome Bruce Miller.

Bruce Miller: Well, thank you very much. I was hoping to recognize myself in your introduction. You were very kind.

Darrell Dawsey: Well, from what I understand, it's all true and I think it's all wonderful, so I appreciate your work and I appreciate you taking the time to join us. I want to talk a little bit about your history. I mean, we know a little bit about some of the higher profile cases, but you got your start in the civil rights work back in high school in the 1940s. Tell us a little bit about that. How'd that come about?

Bruce Miller: Well, I went to a trade school, a textile high school in New York City, and the student population was split roughly three ways, one third each Italian, Jewish and Negro. And almost every year there'd be a race riot, they usually started in the lunch room. But the sides changed, sometimes it would be the Jews and the Blacks against the Italians, the Italians and the Blacks against the Jews and so on. I was very concerned about it, and I organized an interracial club called the Brotherhood Club.

Bruce Miller: And then I decided to form an interracial goon squad to break up the riots, and I would have a program card that would tell me where all the members of my integrated goon squad would be during the day, what classrooms. And as soon as the riots would break out, it would sweep through the school and Everybody would know about it, and I would excuse myself from class and make my rounds and pick up the guys who were part of my detail, and we would head up to the lunch room and we would take care of business. And it wasn't a pacifistic enterprise. And we found that because we were integrated, it disarmed our opponents, they found it very difficult to come at us. And we did that a couple of times, and it basically stopped. We ran some interracial youth dances for the first time and they worked and were very popular. And then later on, I organize the Interracial Youth Committee, which had its headquarters in the Lenox Avenue Library in Harlem. It had, some, not all high schools, but it had a few high schools that participated.

Darrell Dawsey: Now, even after high school, you kind of continued this standing up to oppression all through college. I'm just kind of wondering, was that your goal when you went to law school, correcting the system from within? Was that something that drove you to law school or was there something else?

Bruce Miller: No, it had a big influence of my going to law school. Some people felt that my conduct was the conduct of a delinquent because I didn't do very well with authority. I joined the Army, for example, I enlisted in the Army to get the GI Bill of Rights, but I was anti-military. And when I was in the Army, I wouldn't salute officers. Well, being in the regular Army and not saluting officers could create a problem for you, and I probably peeled more potatoes in the two years that I was in the Army than any bumper crop ever produced. So I actually thought about it, how could I take this personality of mine, which was an adversarial personality, and do some good with it and maybe make a living? And I decided being a lawyer was the best way to do it, and that's why I decided to become a lawyer.

Darrell Dawsey: Now you went to law school here in Detroit at Wayne Law, even though you were from Brooklyn. How does a kid from Brooklyn wind up here in Detroit?

Bruce Miller: Well, it was quite an odyssey. After I left the Army I was trying to get into a college, but my high school record was so bad that about the only college I could get into was one sponsored by Jackson Prison, otherwise it would not be that easy. Somebody told me about Olivet College, and that they had a tutorial system and you could get in based on an interview. So I came up to Michigan and went to Olivet and checked in, and they decided to accept me. Well, unfortunately for me they fired a professor that summer, a fellow by the name of T. Barton Akeley who was a very decent guy, because of his politics.

Bruce Miller: So I set about with some others to organize a student strike, that strike ultimately was unsuccessful and we ended up, I, and some of the other strikers ended up in Mexico City. We were interested in Mexico because Akeley had spent time there. And so in Mexico I was there for almost two years. I applied to about four law schools, one of which was Wayne. Three turned me down and Wayne never responded. So when I came to Detroit, I didn't know what was going to happen. And I found out the reason they hadn't accepted me is because they didn't get my application, so they took me provisionally. About a year and a half after that, I found out what happened. The Dean of Mexico City College sent all of these registrars a letter. And the letter said, which I'm paraphrasing, "To whom it may concern, Mr. Miller is an excellent student as evidenced by his transcript, but I feel it incumbent upon me to tell anybody who comes in contact with him, that he is a troublemaker." And that sort of killed three... Wayne kept me, they didn't know about this letter, and they kept me provisionally and by the time it came they ignored it. And that's how I got to Detroit.

Darrell Dawsey: All right. All right. Well, tell us a little bit about your early time at Wayne State. What was that like? Were you very much still the firebrand? Were you still causing trouble when you were in law school here at Wayne State? What was your experience?

Bruce Miller: Well, I don't know that I was a firebrand, but I did organize the [Walter Ruther 00:09:34] branch of the student league for industrial democracy. We'd picket a bar on Woodward, I forget the name of it right now, because it didn't serve African-Americans. We had some problems with state hall because of its housing policies in those days. We were very active. My organization was very active against the communist elements on campus, with which we had fundamental disagreements. So I was a busy beaver. And while all of this was going on, my friends in the FBI would come visit me at law school and invite me to go for a ride with them around the block so they could try and convince me to become a stool pigeon, which was not something I was very comfortable with, and never did.

Darrell Dawsey: Yeah, still that must've been a little scary for a young guy to be picked up by the FBI for his political work.

Bruce Miller: A number of times. And it was scary.

Darrell Dawsey: Yeah, that sounds a little frightening,. but you persevered and you pushed through, and even in the late 60s after law school, you would continue to do this work. I understand. In the early 1960s, you handled a particular case that was lodged against the Detroit police department for the abuse of an African-American woman. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that case and about what that case says about the ability to move the system through the courts?

Bruce Miller: Well, the person well was named Barbara Jackson. She was a Black prostitute that worked out of the Purple Onion. I don't know if there's still an existence, but it was either on [Beaubien 00:11:43] or [Johnar 00:11:43], or whichever street runs downtown. That was it. It was across the street from a three story building, which was in reality, a three story whorehouse. So one day I got a call from Martha who was executive director of the Detroit branch to tell me that she was sitting in his office and looked very bad from a beating, and could I come down? So of course I went and she looked awful. So I said to Arthur, "I have an idea. Why don't we take her down to the mayor's office," that was Jerry Cavanaugh, and drop her on his doorstep. Call the press to have them there and say, "Here Mr. Mayor is what police brutality looks like."

Bruce Miller: Arthur loved the idea, and we made calls and we took her to Jerry's office as we had planned. Jerry never forgave me for it, but that's life. The press was there. It became a big deal. What happened we found out was that she picked up a Canadian married John, went across to this building up to the third floor, all the bedrooms were filled, so they was sitting in the living room waiting for spades, and then unannounced, who walks in, but a police officer? Nobody had called him. He wasn't there to arrest anybody. And his partner was sitting in a scout car in the alley downstairs. Well, when this white John saw the cop, he went crazy, and started accusing her of stealing money from him. She was no shrinking violet, and she gave it back to him in kind. Cop decided to arrest her and to bring him along as a complaining witness.

Bruce Miller: They took her ... Can you hear that sound?

Darrell Dawsey: I can't hear anything. You sound fine from my end.

Bruce Miller: Okay. So they took him downtown and the cop pulled her out of the scout car and grabbed her by the hair. She was wearing a wig, and the wig came off in his hands, and that got him very mad and very frustrated. And he grabbed her by the back of the neck, and was marching her in to the entrance to 1300 Beaubien. And as he was coming up to the entrance way, he smashed her face into the brick wall, and ground it in. And then that was how she was injured. It was pretty awful. So that was her condition.

Bruce Miller: We then decided to bring an action against the Michigan civil rights commission, which was a new agency at the time. The co-chairman were Damon Keith and a Republican will became a federal judge. His name escapes me at the moment. I'll remember it before this is over. And we filed the complaint. After we filed the complaint, the police raided her apartment while she was in a bathtub. And pulled her out of the bathtub, took her downtown, and held her, and told her that she could not be a prostitute. They would put her out business unless she said that her pimp had beat her up. While this was going on, I try to get her into habeas corpus. I got one, but they didn't respond to it. They never produced a pursuant to the [inaudible 00:16:23], but they did let her go. A short time after that, they picked up her pimp and they told the pimp that if he was the one that beat her up, they would put him out of business. And he refused to do that, and we filed a complaint with the commission to protect him.

Bruce Miller: Well, the case went on with no break. It was ostensibly under investigation. And one night, the Reverend Jim Wadsworth, who was the president of the Detroit branch at the time and I were together at some church meeting when we were called by a deputy sheriff who wanted to speak to us on an urgent basis, and said that he was a witness to the whole thing. If you recall, the Sheriff's office was dressed right across the street from the police garage at 1300.

Bruce Miller: So we met with him, I got a court reporter to take good statement. He had seen the whole thing, and it had weighed on him, I think this was maybe even a couple of months later, but it had weighed on his conscience. He was afraid of reprisals. And then he had this moral sense of obligation, and he told us what happened. And what I had described to you a little while ago is what he told us.

Darrell Dawsey: Okay.

Bruce Miller: Well, now we had corroboration. Now to explain to you how I participated in these things, I did not bring lawsuits for damages on these police cases. I believed that was a strategic mistake. You bring a lawsuit, you settle it for X number of dollars. A lawyer gets a fee, the client gets some money and life just goes on.

Bruce Miller: And while the lawsuits pending, no investigations are going on because we have a lawsuit going on, so how can we have an investigation? So my view on handling these matters was to look for structural change in the department because that had some lasting effect. The other thing I was very careful about was making demands. I believe you build a movement with victories, not defeats. And so if you make crazy demands that are not going to happen, even if you win something, you've lost. So I would not make a demand and fire the officer because I knew it wasn't going to happen. So what I would do is demand appropriate relief. What do you want? Appropriate action. What's appropriate action? We'll see what's appropriate action. And that gave me flexibility, so no matter what happened, I could claim victory.

Bruce Miller: Well, the civil rights commission made findings, not good enough, very weak. But found wrongdoing on the part of that case and there were two other cases they had on file at the time, that I wasn't involved in and they lumped all three together. So the police officers were reprimanded. Well, let me tell you something, that was the first reprimand for police misconduct that we ever heard of. I mean, that was a big deal that you could get a police officer reprimanded and that concluded the Barbara Jackson case.

Darrell Dawsey: Okay. Okay. That's very interesting. Now, along those same lines, when it comes down to dealing with issues of race, equality, civil rights. You also brought and won a significant case that led to the integration of employment practices at First Federal of Michigan. Can you just give us a little bit of insight into that?

Bruce Miller: Well, none of the downtown banks hired blacks, they were all Lily white. The NAACP had a housing committee. The chairman, his last name was Featherstone. I think his first name may have been Arthur, but I'm not sure. He organized demonstrations at First Federal to try and get them to change their hiring policies. They sat in, they sat on the sidewalks and then there were arrests.

Bruce Miller: After there were arrests, there was a trial because we would not plead guilty. We believed that these arrests would serve our purposes by pointing attention to the discriminatory practices going on at the bank. So we not only wouldn't settle, we wanted a trial. Well, I was chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee at that time. And I got two people, two lawyers to handle the case. One was Myron Walls, who became a court of appeals judge. He was also very good piano player and George Downing, who was white and who was an excellent trial attorney.

Bruce Miller: The prosecutor was Roman Gribs. He became sheriff later on, he became mayor of the city of Detroit, and he ended up as a court of appeals judge. But these people hadn't achieved any of that yet. During the course of the jury selection, Gribs was challenging all the black jurors. Downing and Walls were very upset about that and the judge decided to hold a conference at the bench. So the court reporter put her stenotype machine up on the bench and they all stood up.

Bruce Miller: And speaking in low tones, Ray Gribs told of the case, important case involving John Roxborough, who used to be Joe Louis' manager, who had been charged and tried in Wayne County for being involved in a numbers racket. And he was getting rid of all the black jurors and he explained to the court, everybody knows all these blacks play the numbers.

Bruce Miller: The case went to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court permitted it. It wasn't until later that the United States Supreme Court barred these kinds of challenges, based on race. So after he described the case, the judge looked at Mike, Mike Walls and said, "Mike, what number did you play today?" Well, George Downing had no sense of humor. And he said, "Judge, you apologize to him". And the judge put his hand on the court reporter and said, "Stop taking this down." And Downing continued, "You apologize."

Bruce Miller: And then Downing started crying and ran out of the courtroom and asked me to take it over, which I did. When I came back after lunch, I got up and I said, "Judge, with all respect, I understand there was an off the record conversation this morning. This is a court of record. Let's put it on the record." And he went berserk and said, "I know what you're trying to do. You're trying to try me and not the lawsuit."

Bruce Miller: And then I said, "Your honor, with all respect, I understand that there was an off the record conversation in the courtroom this morning, and this is a court of record and we should put it on the record." About this point, Downing comes back and says, "Bruce, okay, I can take it over." So I went back to the office and sent an emergency motion to the Supreme Court to disqualify the judge. They disqualified him with a two sentence decision. I don't think anything like that had ever happened before.

Darrell Dawsey: I don't know how much of that's happened since. That's a pretty big win. That's a pretty big win.

Bruce Miller: Well, really it was something. And they also provided that he was not to have any further participation in the case. Well, then I learned from the newspapers that the judges over at recorder's court at a meeting to decide what to do about this problem and he was sitting in the meeting. Well, that was a violation of the Supreme Court's order, so I filed a motion to disqualify the [inaudible 00:27:04]. I set a hearing for it and subpoenaed all the judges to come to the hearing. We're getting great copy. About this time, I get it call from the general counsel of First Federal that Mr. Miller, we're prepared to drop the charges against your clients. I say, "Not a chance. You got to keep prosecuting. We're not going to let you drop the charges." Crazy thing for a lawyer to say on behalf of a client. They said, "Well, what will it take to get you to agree that we drop the charges?" I said, "Well, if we agree to goals and timetables, maybe that'll do it." Well, he wasn't ready for that yet.

Bruce Miller: We had a hearing. I had my partner, name's [Rudling 00:28:08], argue it. I was just a young lawyer. He was an older guy who a lot of stature, I thought it made more sense for him to do it. And while he was arguing it, I was handling the telephone because negotiations were going on between Walter Ruth, his assistant, and the prosecuting attorney about how to handle this. It was really quite exciting. And finally, a deal was made that they would drop charges, First Federal would sign an agreement on goals and timetables. And that was how black folk got to work in banks in downtown Detroit.

Darrell Dawsey: All right. Well, that's a heck of a story, great bit of local history, and national history, I would think as well. Now I just want to move forward a little bit. I know you're still actively practicing at 93. You're still very much involved in a lot of the issues that you were involved with. The firm that you founded has become one of the preeminent civil rights and employment firms and state. I'm wondering, what are your thoughts on the directions of where do you think civil rights and employment rights, labor rights, are moving toward here in the 21st century? And what are your hopes and expectations for those movements, and what are your hopes about the direction of your firm as it relates to how those movements and those issues are evolving?

Bruce Miller: Well, with reference to my firm, at 93, I have to think about my future with the firm. And obviously time is running out. So I have decided that my partner, Richard Mack, should succeed me as president of the firm. He will be the first African-American to lead a labor and employment firm in Michigan, maybe in the United States. He's an outstanding lawyer. He'll be a great leader. So this is the first time this has been said in public. So you got a scoop on that.

Darrell Dawsey: Got some news here. All right.

Bruce Miller: A lot of people in the law firm don't even know this. I think the George Floyd thing had some good to it and some bad to it. I think to the extent that it sensitized people to the horror of police brutality, it was a good thing. To the extent that people moved too far to the left with crazy demands like defund the police, it fed into the hands of the right wing, who used these crazy demands for their own purposes. And frankly, I think the people made those kinds of demands probably were not wedded to the black community because the black community and the black churches certainly aren't for defunding the police. If anything, they want more funds, more police, but good police, well-trained police. Not bigoted police because they have great needs.

Bruce Miller: But I think the good that came out of it outweighs the bad. I think people are now looking at the problem seriously. I personally disagree with the description of this country as a racist country. I believe there is racism in the country. I think it's significant. I know there's antisemitism in the country. I as a Jew experience it, understand it. But I don't think a country that passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Fair Employment Practices, elected a African American president for two terms, can be described as a racist country. I think that's inaccurate and it's counterproductive. There are millions of decent people in this country who want to do the right thing. And if they are approached in a reasonable way, they will do it. I am very optimistic about the future.

Darrell Dawsey: All right. Well, I appreciate that. Appreciate you sharing some of your thoughts with us and your hopes. Is there anything else that you might want to add? We're getting close to the wrap up. I know you're a busy man, so I don't want to take too much of your time. But I just want to give you an opportunity to perhaps to touch on anything that we may not have addressed that you think is important.

Bruce Miller: Well, that would take another three hours. So I'm going to relieve you of your misery.

Darrell Dawsey: All right. Well, you're not doing me any favors. I really enjoyed the conversation, Bruce. I really appreciate you taking the time. I'm really thankful and grateful for a lot of the work that you've done in the community, in the city, around the state and around this country. You've made a real impact. And we're proud to call you a Wayne State Warrior.

Bruce Miller: Thank you very much.

Darrell Dawsey: All right, Bruce. You have a great day. Thanks a lot.

Bruce Miller: Same to you.

Darrell Dawsey: This is Darrell Dawsey. This is the Today at Wayne podcast. Thank you.

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