Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1968: MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign rallies in Detroit

By: - May 13, 2022 4:42 am

Protesters and activists march down Woodward Avenue during May 13,1968 Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Detroit | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Tony Spina collection

On May 13, 1968, Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign was carried out without him in Detroit. America’s leading civil rights leader was murdered on April 4 of that year. 

The objective of the national effort was to gain “economic justice” for poor people in the United States. It was organized by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King’s supporters decided that the march would continue after the 39-year-old’s untimely death. U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs Jr. (D-Detroit) attended. So did Democrat G. Mennen “Soapy” Williams, a former Michigan governor and Kennedy and Johnson administration official.

“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on,” said King about the effort. “People ought to come to Washington, sit down, if necessary, in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.'”

Civil rights demonstrators from across the country converge on the National Mall during the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. in 1968. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

Hundreds participated in the effort that traveled down Woodward Avenue and ended in downtown Detroit. They hoisted placards that read, “Eliminate American Colonialism” and “Bread beats bullets.” Marchers and police clashed at Cobo Hall, located in the city’s convention center.

Hosea Williams, a member of the SCLC executive board, called Detroit “a dungeon of shame” nearly a year after civil unrest erupted in the Motor City.  

“Detroit has just put herself No. 1 on the civil rights list as far as the SCLC is concerned,” he said, according to Associated Press.

Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a liberal Democrat, offered a welcome to those who had traveled to Detroit to participate.

UAW President Walter Reuther visits the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C. in 1968. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University photo

“The citizens of this community endorse the objectives of your drive and will demonstrate that support — not only while you are in our city but also when you leave by adding 200 people to your number,” said Cavanagh, according to Detroit American news reporting.

“No one can doubt the importance of what you are doing,” Cavanagh added. “Your aims are beyond dispute. Your method is beyond reproach: the peaceful petition of our government for a redress of grievances.”

Once the effort reached Washington, D.C., participants set up a protest camp on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks in the spring of 1968, beginning May 14 until federal officials forced protesters to leave and dismantled their tents. 

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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 Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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