By: - April 4, 2023 4:34 am

Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses media during his appearance at Grosse Pointe High School on March 14, 1968. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Hours after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot on the evening of April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., some Michigan residents took to the streets in protest. 

King was 39. The African American leader was in Tennessee to support striking sanitation workers. He had recently visited Detroit and Grosse Pointe on March 14 earlier that year. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Detroit “Walk to Freedom” march on June 23, 1963. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

“Just before midnight,” the Windsor Star reported, “police dispersed a large crowd of youths who gathered on 12th Street, the heart of the July [1967] riot.” Windsor reporters were tracking Detroit radio broadcasts. 

Detroit’s major daily newspapers, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, were not publishing at the time due to a workers’ strike.

Later in the story, the Star stated “at one point around 11:30 [pm] police were sent to investigate six instances of shots being fired within a space of five minutes. In two instances, they were at ‘police officers.’”

The following day, April 5, African-American students at Detroit’s Cooley High School and Mumford High School walked out of their classes in protest over the assassination. They were joined by students from other city schools as well as African American workers at a Motor City Chrysler Corp. automobile plant.  

Says a 1968 Grosse Pointe resident: ‘N-bombs were pretty frequent.’

White Michiganders also expressed sorrow about King’s death. 

“The assassination of Martin Luther King is a great national tragedy,” said then-Gov. George Romney, a GOP member who participated in a 1963 Detroit NAACP civil rights march through racially segregated sections of metro Detroit. “At a time when we need aggressive nonviolent leadership to peacefully achieve equal rights, equal opportunities and equal responsibilities for all, his leadership will be grievously missed.” 

Lansing Mayor Max Muringham was also moved to comment.  

“The irresponsible and sordid act which has taken the life of this nation’s great civil rights leader has stunned responsible citizens in all walks of life,” Muringham said. 

Veteran sports journalist Bob Page, then a 16-year-old Grosse Pointe high school student spoke with the Advance on Friday about his recollections about the time. The first African American, A. Gordon Wright, who secured a home mortgage in the five-community set of Grosse Pointe cities did not do so until 1965. 

“N-bombs were pretty frequent,” Page, who is white, said of his community during that time.  

Nonetheless, Page was inspired by African American leaders like Malcolm X and King. So much so that a classmate signed his high school yearbook and referred to Page as “you N-—r.” 

“It was just the shock of it coming on the heels of the JFK assassination,” said Page about King’s death, referring to President John F. Kennedy, who was fatally shot in 1963.” There were a lot of us who were hip to what was going on and wanted to see change.” 

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 students, staff and others assembled at Michigan State University Student Union the day after the shooting. There, African Americans, members of the Black Student Alliance, presented a letter to MSU President John Hannah, who also was chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, that read:

“America, you killed your last chance. Join us now to commemorate the death of America’s only spiritual leader–the Rev. Martin Luther King. Shut down everything and take a count now. Did Rev. King’s death cancel out America?”

About 200 adults and youth block intersections of streets in Battle Creek, according UPI reporting at the time. 

Martin Luther King Jr. Michigan Historical Marker in Grosse Pointe. | Ken Coleman

The state House and Senate on April 5 adopted resolutions honoring King. Flags were flown at half-staff at the Capitol Building and the House and Senate chambers.  

“I feel the same way that I did when President Kennedy was assassinated,” state Rep. Raymond Hood, an African American Detroit Democrat, said at the time. 

House Speaker Robert Waldron (R-Grosse Pointe), who was white, added that King’s death is “a serious setback to sensible and peaceful relations among all of the people in this nation.”

Today, streets in Benton Harbor, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Pontiac, Portage and Detroit are named in King’s honor. So has a Detroit high school. A Michigan Historical Marker lifting up King’s seminal 1963 civil rights march in Detroit has been approved and is poised to be erected.  


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history 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.