An attorney and political strategist, Robert Millender was a driving force behind the first generation of successful African-American politicians in the city of Detroit. By developing an overall strategy for African-American political ascendancy and acting as campaign manager in individual races, Millender helped Detroit's African-Americans gain the political power enjoyed today. Although never elected to a political office, Millender's significance to the people of Detroit is demonstrated by the naming of the Robert L. Millender Center in his honor.
Robert Millender was born on December 8, 1916 in Chicora, Mississippi. His family moved to Detroit in 1921 when his father migrated North for a job at Ford Motor Company. Millender graduated from Northwestern High School and followed his father into a job at Ford. He married in 1941. That same year he left Ford and took a job at the post office so that he could attend night school. At the outbreak of World War II, Millender joined the United States Army, rising to the rank of Warrent Officer by the time of his discharge in 1945. After returning to civilian life, Millender enrolled in the Detroit College of Law and graduated in 1952. Upon graduation he was appointed to the Workers Compensation Board and became the deputy director in 1957.
Millender became interested in politics as a way for African Americans to exert power, given that they were often denied economic power. In the mid-1950s he began to develop political strategies and to recruit young African-American leaders to run for political office. Millender and George Crockett, Jr. were instrumental in finding the logical boundaries and legal grounds for creating a new congressional district in Detroit that would elect an African American to the United States House of Representatives. These efforts paid off in 1964 with the election of John Conyers, for whom Millender acted as campaign manager. Millender was known for his tireless efforts on behalf of African-American candidates, spending countless hours canvassing neighborhoods and meeting with voters and city leaders. His dedication paid off in a number of significant political victories in which he managed campaigns. He served as campaign manager for George Crockett's 1966 election as the first African-American Recorder's Court Judge and for Detroit City Council members Robert Tindal and Erma Henderson. Millender managed Richard Austin's 1969 campaign as the first African-American mayoral candidate and his 1970 successful candidacy for secretary of state, making Austin the first African American to hold that post. Millender's political activism reached an apex with Coleman Young's 1973 election as mayor of Detroit.
In addition to his political activism, Millender was also a partner in the law firm of Goodman, Eden, Millender, and Bedrosian, the first known integrated law firm in the United States. He also served as political chairman for the Trade Unions Leadership Council, which was a group of African Americans fighting for their rights within Detroit's unions. In addition to all this, Millender found time to support numerous charitable causes.