June 23, 1963, remains an important date in Detroit history. It is the date that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered for the first time the famous speech that would ring through the annals of time.
A crowd of 125,000 walked with King down Woodward Avenue to Detroit’s convention center, where he delivered the speech in an event called The Walk to Freedom. He was joined by Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of Aretha Franklin, and the Mayor of the city Jerome Cavanagh.
The Walk to Freedom was one of the largest and greatest demonstrations of freedom of its time.
Notably, the Detroit chapter of the NAACP did not participate. The group was ultra-conservative at the time and King’s demands for governmental and societal respect and the immediate enactment of federal civil rights legislation was not aligned with the group.
Still, most Detroiters agreed with King and Detroit was an appropriate place for the speech to take place.
The city was nearly 40% Black at the time and yet Black people made up less than 5% of the police department which was disproportionately arrested and abusing Black citizens. This would become evident four years later during the raid of a “blind pig” where several Black Detroiters would be fatally shot by police leading to days of violent protests that would reshape the city forever.
But in 1963, Dr. King was hoping to inspire the end of segregation and discrimination. In the Detroit speech, he speaks of his dream for Blacks in Detroit to “be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them, and they will be able to get a job.”
Historians have not confirmed whether Motown Records founder Berry Gordy was present at The Walk to Freedom. However, Gordy was moved to release the Detroit version of King’s iconic speech in August 1963. The album was called “The Great March to Freedom” and was wholesale priced at $1.80.
Motown later released two more albums of King’s speeches, “The Great March on Washington,” and “Free At Last.” A Motown imprint would release “Why I Oppose The War in Vietnam” in 1970 two years after King’s assassination.
On this King Day 2021, as the first African American, South Asian, and woman is soon to be sworn in as the Vice President of the United States. There are a number of significant locations in Detroit to visit to honor the legacy of Dr. King and the role that Detroit played in the Civil Rights Movement.
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
Founded in 1965, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has for over half a century been a leading institution dedicated to the African-American experience. The Wright Museum provides learning opportunities, exhibitions, programs, and events based on collections and research that explore the diverse history and culture of African-Americans and their African origins.
From the second you walk through the front door, you’ll be greeted with the voices of Motown, and you won’t want to leave without stopping in the gift shop to buy the greatest hits CD. You will walk through the actual recording studio where Motown artists recorded some of the greatest songs of all time.
New Bethel Baptist Church
Once the pulpit of Rev. C.L. Franklin, New Bethel helped shape the gospel career of Aretha Franklin. The church is located at 8430 Linwood St. in Detroit.
The center features a public art collection that shares community stories, local history, regional accomplishments, and innovations. The art collection is managed by the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority Art Foundation.
Voted one of the 10 best museums in the United States, the Henry Ford has on display the bus where Civil Rights pioneer, Rosa Parks, sat sparking the start of the movement that would transform America.
For more information on some of Detroit’s most iconic Black history destinations click here.
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1Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit, MI 48201313-494-5800