On June 22, Detroit is celebrating the 50th anniversary of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described as “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America” -- Detroit’s “Walk to Freedom.” Organized by the Detroit Council on Human Rights (DCHR), with substantial support from the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) and its famous president, Walter P. Reuther, the Walk to Freedom was the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s history. That distinction, however, lasted only a few weeks until August 28, 1963, when over 250,000 people participated in the “March on Washington for Jobs and Justice.”
The purpose of the Walk to Freedom was to speak out against segregation and the brutality that met civil rights activists in the South while at the same time addressing concerns of African Americans in the urban North: inequality in hiring practices, wages, education, and housing. The date of the Walk, June 23, 1963, was chosen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit Riots in which 34 people, the majority of them African American, were killed.
On the afternoon of the march, 125,000 people filled Woodward Avenue curb-to-curb, carried signs that demanded racial equity, and moved in relative silence as 15,000 spectators watched from sidewalks, windows, and the roofs of buildings. Community activists, representatives from organized labor, clergymen, and state and local government officials all participated in the march. Notable figures included Rev. C.L. Franklin, chairman of the DCHR; Walter Reuther, president of the UAW; Rev. Albert Cleage (Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman); Mayor Jerome Cavanagh; former governor John B. Swainson; and Benjamin McFall. In his absence, Governor George Romney proclaimed June 23 “Freedom March Day in Michigan.” The guest of honor, of course, was Dr. King, who was met by the crowd with song as he joined the march at Cadillac Square.
The route of the march started at a twenty-one-block staging area near Adelaide Street. It followed Woodward Avenue to Jefferson Avenue, and then headed west through the Civic Center. An hour and a half after it began, it ended at Cobo Hall, where 25,000 people -- an estimated 95% of them were African American -- filled the building to capacity. Thousands of demonstrators who could not find a seat spilled out onto the lawns and malls outside Cobo Hall, and listened to the programming through loudspeakers. Inside, public officials, African American business and civic leaders, and other dignitaries including John B. Swainson, Congressman Charles Diggs, and Rev. Albert Cleage were among the speakers. Yet the rally is remembered primarily because it was here that Dr. King gave an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech; two months later he delivered it at the historic March on Washington. In it, he proclaimed that the status quo was unacceptable. He advised that African Americans needed to stand up and fight for equality and freedom while standing firm to the principle of non-violence and to “make real the promises of democracy” by supporting the civil rights bill that President Johnson had put before congress. The response by the audience was ecstatic. It is estimated that over $100,000 was raised for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the civil rights organization for which Dr. King served as president.
The "Walk to Freedom" is but a small piece of the struggle for equality for African Americans. For more information on the civil rights movement in Detroit, there is no finer collection to consult than that of the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University.
This year, on June 22, there will be another “Walk to Freedom,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1963 event. Sponsored by the NAACP, the UAW and other organizations, information on the day’s activities can be found at: www.freedomwalkDetroit.com.