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LeFlore: Dr. King’s Walk to Freedom is one of the most powerful moments in Detroit’s history


This year marks the 60th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Detroit Walk to Freedom,” also known as the “Great March to Freedom.”

Dr. King made several trips to Michigan over the years, from a visit to the University of Michigan in 1962 to his commencement address at Grosse Pointe South High School in 1968, just three weeks prior to his death.

However, the Detroit Walk to Freedom is one of the most powerful moments in our city’s history.

The march was made in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the 1943 riots. In WW2-era Detroit, tensions had been building between the Black and white communities. A proposed housing project for African Americans in Northeast Detroit sparked controversy, and wartime manufacturing plant integration led to walk-outs by white workers.

On June 20, 1943, fighting that started between young people on the Belle Isle Bridge spilled over throughout Detroit. The city became so chaotic that 6,000 federal troops were sent in to restore order. After three days of unrest, 34 people lost their lives and 433 people were injured, many of whom were killed or injured by police officers in the old Paradise Valley neighborhood.

The same issues of housing segregation, employment discrimination, and police brutality brought Dr. King to Detroit in 1963 to lead the Great March to Freedom, organized by the Detroit Council for Human Rights.

The Council was led by Reverend C.L. Franklin (the father of Aretha Franklin and President of the Detroit Council for Human rights) and Reverend Albert Cleage.

There was fear that the experience of 1943 would be repeated. There was concern about the effectiveness of a march in the North given the pervasiveness of activism and protest in the South. There were questions about whether the Council was fit to lead the organizing. There were whispers that Dr. King was too radical.

Indeed, the Council discussed internally whether the march should be all-Black, with the Detroit Chapter of the NAACP reportedly threatening to boycott the march if it were not integrated.

All the doubt notwithstanding, the March drew a crowd estimated to be at least 125,000, with white and Black participants marching from Adelaide (the site of the current Little Caesars Arena) down Woodward Avenue to Cobo Hall. It was the nation’s largest civil rights demonstration to that date.

Dr. King was joined by Congressman Charles Diggs (Michigan’s first Black Congressman), Rev. Franklin, Rev. Cleage, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, and Walter Reuther, president of the United Auto Workers.

After opening speeches, Dr. King took the stage at Cobo Hall and delivered, for the first time, his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, which he would refine and deliver a few weeks later on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom In Detroit, he said:

And so this afternoon, I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers…
I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters…

I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin…
I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that ‘all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’
I have a dream that one day that ‘every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.’
And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair. With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!

On a more personal note, I am most struck by this image of the March (pictured above). I made it my phone background the first time I saw it. It gave me chills. It is so powerful to see Woodward Avenue flooded with people protesting peacefully and demanding change. It truly is one of the most important moments in our city’s history. It inspires me to think about what we can accomplish together.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that the thing Dr. King and so many others were marching for all those years ago – racial equity – still eludes us to this day, and our fight continues.


For more information on the Walk to Freedom and to hear Dr. King’s Detroit speech, check out these links.