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MLK’s historic Detroit Walk to Freedom march is remembered 60 years later 

By: - January 16, 2023 5:30 am

Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit in 1963. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On June 23, 1963, more than 125,000 people marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. down Woodward Avenue in Detroit in an effort to promote civil rights. 

Participants included funeral home owner Benjamin McFall; activist and real estate broker James Del Rio (who later served as a state House member); the Rev. C.L. Franklin, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church; and the Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., pastor of Central Congregational Church. 

The Rev. Nicholas Hood III, pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Detroit, participated in the effort as a child. His father, the late Nicholas Hood Sr., was also an organizer. 

“One of the legacies of the march is that churches always need to ask themselves from a social justice standpoint: ‘What are we doing? and are we on the right side of the issues?’” Hood III, a former member of the Detroit City Council, told the Advance on Friday.

Democratic former Gov. John Swainson, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh and UAW President Walter Reuther were there. Then-Gov. George Romney, a Republican, did not attend the march because it took place on a Sunday and conflicted with his religious practices as a member of the Mormon faith. Romney, however, had participated in civil rights during his tenure as governor. 

The event, which included a rally at the Cobo Arena, was sponsored by the Detroit Council for Human Rights. The idea was to highlight social inequities in the Motor City, which included housing discrimination, poor police-community relations, and the lack of economic opportunities for Blacks and other people of color. 

Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit in 1963. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

At the time, Detroit was about 30% African American, but only one member of the city’s seven-person legislative body was Black. African Americans only composed about 3% of the city’s police force and continually argued that they were harassed by white officers who patrolled Black neighborhoods. 

At the June 1963 event in Detroit, King delivered his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech. He would later present the speech during the Aug. 28, 1963 March on Washington held on the mall in the nation’s capital. 

“Almost one hundred and one years ago, on September the 22nd, 1862, to be exact, a great and noble American, Abraham Lincoln, signed an executive order, which was to take effect on January the first, 1863,” said King that day. “This executive order was called the Emancipation Proclamation and it served to free the Negro from the bondage of physical slavery. But one hundred years later, the Negro in the United States of America still isn’t free.”

The Detroit and Washington, D.C., marches helped to lead the way for the federal government’s passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy Jr. later released the Detroit version of King’s iconic speech on a recording called, “The Great March to Freedom.” 

King was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. on April 4, 1968. He was only 39. His birthday, Jan. 15, is a federal holiday that is observed on the third Monday of January annually.

The Detroit NAACP has commemorated the historic Detroit march in 1993 and 2013. An effort to erect a Walk to Freedom Michigan Historical Marker is underway, according to the State Historic Preservation Office.

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Ken Coleman
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 Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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