On this day in 1969: William Milliken becomes Michigan governor

    Portrait of Gov. William Milliken in the state Capitol | Nick Manes

    On Jan. 22, 1969, William Milliken became Michigan’s 44th governor. 

    “I’m ready for the job and eager to get on with it,” he said at the time. 

    The Traverse City native and World War II veteran had been serving Michigan lieutenant governor since 1965. Prior to that he had served in the Michigan Senate. After attending Yale University, he flew 50 combat missions as a waist-gunner on B-24 bombers during World War II and survived two crash landings. He earned seven military honors, including the Purple Heart. 

    Milliken ascended to Michigan’s top executive post after George Romney joined the President Richard M. Nixon administration to serve as U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary. 

    Milliken, a moderate Republican, was 46 at the time. He would become Michigan’s longest-serving governor, being elected to a full term in 1970 and reelected in 1974 and 1978. During a challenged national economy that included a recession, oil embargo and troubled American automobile market, he was known for his commitment to the environment and his compassion for both urban and rural communities, whether in the Upper Peninsula or the Eastern or Western regions of the state. In 1977, he signed the seminal Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. 

    On Dec. 22, 1981, as Milliken prepared to enter his 14th year as governor, he announced that he would not seek another term.

    “I intend to campaign for Michigan, to devote my final year in office to promoting the interests of the state that I love, a state that I am proud to have served longer than any other governor,” he said during a news conference.  

    Milliken remembered as ‘great’ man, coalition builder at memorial service

    During his post gubernatorial years, Milliken backed candidates from both major political parties. In 2010, he endorsed Rick Snyder in the Republican gubernatorial primary, and continued to support him in 2014. However, in the 2014 U.S. Senate contest, he supported Democrat Gary Peters over Republican nominee Terri Lynn Land. In 2015, Milliken signed an amicus brief in support of same-sex marriage. In 2016, he endorsed Hilary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee over Donald Trump.  

    William Milliken died October 18, 2019 at age at 97.

    “Gov. Milliken is deservedly known for his commitment to protecting our environment, investing in public education, and preserving jobs in the auto industry,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, last year at the time of his memorial service held on Aug. 6, 2020. “He understood that in Michigan, a strong foundation is built on the preservation of our Great Lakes and freshwater, quality education for our kids, and paths to good jobs for everyone in our state. Now, decades later, these values still hold true. And the paths that we take to meet these goals can define who we are as leaders and as Michiganders, and we must work together to get it done.”

    Ken Coleman
    Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.