Congressman Keith Ellison, who has represented Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2007, is looking forward to returning to his native Detroit where he will deliver the keynote address at the Michigan Chronicle’s Men of Excellence Awards gala. The event will be held on Friday, July 10, at the MGM Grand Detroit.
“I’m honored that the Michigan Chronicle has invited me to come home to keynote its Men of Excellence wards event,” said Ellison. “If you look at back issues of the Chronicle, between 1981 and 1985, you’ll see some articles that I wrote. So my history with the Chronicle, just like it is with the city of Detroit, is very special and I’m so honored to be coming home.”
While the 51-year-old Ellison, the nation’s first Muslim to serve in Congress, has lived in Minnesota since 1987, the first 23 years of his life were spent in Detroit. He grew up in the W. Seven Mile Road-Livernois Avenue area of the city, where he and his four brothers were raised Catholic by their father, a psychiatrist, and mother, a Wayne County social worker.
While life was good for the Ellisons, young Keith, through the teaching of his parents and grandparents, learned about the inequalities and injustices that Black people faced across America, especially in the South. Young Ellison became a prolific reader on topics about the history and struggles of Black people in America and beyond.
“When I was around 15, I read ‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X,’” said Ellison. “I understood his philosophy and was so proud that he had a connection to Detroit. I began to read more and more about the Civil Rights Movement and its many other leaders, and the need to correct a broken world. That’s why, other than Muhammed Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, I never looked at athletes as my heroes. My heroes were civil rights leaders.”
After graduating from University of Detroit Jesuit High School, Ellison attended Wayne State University. It was at Wayne State that he ecame active in finding ways and platforms to address racism and seeking empowerment for the oppressed in America and South Africa.
One of the ways that Ellison expressed his views was writing for Wayne State’s South End newspaper, as well as the Chronicle. In both newspapers, he wrote on issues of racism and injustice in America against Black people.
“My first real activism was actually the whole effort to get Wayne State to divest in South Africa’s apartheid,” said Ellison. “I actively got involved in protests and sought other viable means to end apartheid in South Africa. I was very active with Wayne’s Black Student Association.”
There was another revelation for Ellison at Wayne State.
“It was at Wayne State that I became a Muslim,” said Ellison. “I was 19.”
Ellison converted to Islam, in part, because “it made me have a sense of inspiration and wonder,” he said. “When I looked at my spiritual life, and I looked at what could impact social change and justice for society, I found Islam. It’s been working for me ever since.”
After graduating from Wayne State with a bachelor’s degree in economics, Ellison moved to Minnesota where he attended the University of Minnesota Law School. Upon receiving his law degree, instead of returning to Detroit, Ellison, who was married with two small children at the time, remained in Minnesota for more lucrative employment opportunities to support his young family.
Ellison worked for two well-known private law firms in Minneapolis, where he took on civil rights and criminal defense cases. He also served as executive director of non-profit Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, an organization that mounts legal assistance for impoverished clients.
While Ellison was making a difference, he began to realize that he could be more instrumental in helping people as an elected official, by working to change policies and laws, a position that he didn’t relish during his early days of community activism.
“Before I was 35, I didn’t know, like or trust many politicians,” he said. “I just didn’t believe that politics and politicians had the answers needed for change.”
However, after changing his mind in 2002, the people of Minnesota elected Ellison to the Minnesota House of Representatives, House District 58B. Garnering 84 percent of the vote, Ellison, who was 39 at the time, became the first African American representative to serve in Minnesota’s House. He served two consecutive two-year terms. While it was common knowledge that he was a Muslim, voters seemed more focused on his ability to change things for all the people that he represented.
“When I was a state legislator, no one really cared that I was a Muslim.” said Ellison, who represented the city of Minneapolis and approximately 15 of its suburbs. “Voters listened to and accepted my message.”
In 2006, Ellison successful ran for Congress. Upon going to Washington, DC in January, 2007, he recalled that being a Muslim was now the center of a lot of conversation.
“When I first got there, it was the only way people identified me,” said Ellison. “When I showed up for anything, people would ask me, ‘Are you the Muslim congressman?’”
Ellison raised eyebrows in Washington, and in all political circles around the nation, when he took the ceremonial oath of office with the Quran, versus the Bible. Interestingly, the Quran used was published in 1764 and once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the third president of the United States.
These days, colleagues in Congress and across other political spectrums rarely bring up his religion. Instead, Ellison is considered one of Congress’ foremost progressive leaders. His priorities are focused on creating prosperity for working families, promoting peace, pursuing environmental sustainability and advancing civil and human rights.
Ellison consistently fights for job creation, health care, workers’ rights, a clean environment, quality education, strong consumer protections, protecting the right to vote, and equality and justice for all. He has co-chaired the Congressional Progressive Caucus since 2011. He is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and more than a dozen other caucuses and committees that address an array of issues.
Ellison was asked to describe the job President Obama is doing.
“I’m really proud of President Obama. I think he’s been a great president,” said Ellison. “That, however, does not mean that I agree with him on everything. Right now I disagree with his approach to foreign trade. However, I agreed with him on the Affordable Care Act and Wall Street reform. I also agree with what’s he doing with Cuba, support his right to negotiate with Iran, and what he’s tried to do with immigration.”
“Coming back to Detroit is special for me,” said Ellison. “I still have parents, brothers and lots of nieces, nephews and other relatives and friends there. I still love Detroit and its resilient people. It disturbed me for a while that Detroit lost its democratic rights through an emergency manager for a period of time. I thought that it was very bad. So when Detroit takes hits, I still cry. When it does well, I still cheer.”