Monday, January 17, 2022

“One of the most wonderful things”: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Detroit Walk to Freedom

by Gillian Macdonald

As we celebrate and commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., many will recall the 1963 March on Washington, but we highlight the Walk to Freedom in Detroit that happened two months prior.

Detroit Tribune front page, June 29, 1963

Detroit has a rich history of civil rights activism. Famously, Detroiters donated around $35,000 to the Montgomery Bus Boycott—a crucial moment in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s emergence as a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. The Detroit chapter of the NAACP was particularly active in the ‘40s and ‘50s—on various occasions African American autoworkers worked with the chapter to uphold anti-discrimination laws. In 1949, protestors led sit-ins along Woodward Avenue demonstrating against the illegal discrimination practiced by restaurants against Black people.[1] Leading the fight against the American Automobile Association for equal employment laws, the Detroit chapter of CORE (Congress on Racial Equality) was pivotal rallying white support for Civil Rights.

By the 1960s, there was stalwart support throughout southeastern Michigan for the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King made a trip to the University of Michigan in 1962 in support of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s advocacy for student civil disobedience.[2] And in the summer of 1963, ahead of the March on Washington and King’s momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, Detroit played host to the Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was a formative event for the Civil Rights Movement and inspired thousands of Detroiters.

In 1963, CORE, the NAACP, and Rev. Albert Cleage and Rev. Clarence L. Franklin—Civil Rights leaders in Detroit--came together to propose a large, organized event or demonstration in Detroit. What emerged from this convergence of leadership was the Detroit Council for Human Rights (DCHR), the organization that was largely responsible for that auspicious day in June 1963. The Walk to Freedom in Detroit—after some initial debate—was open to all participants. The purpose of the march, the date of which was chosen to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Detroit race riot of 1943 [3], was to admonish discrimination, brutality against activists, and segregation policies across the United States.

Contained within the program was, “The Declaration of Detroit,” which stipulated the terms and purpose of the march. The document declared “before God and all men this 17th day of May in the Year of Our Lord 1963, that we will no longer abide, tolerate or countenance this manifest injustice.” The program added that all Detroiters should know that the march organizers pledged to support—both in numbers and financial aid—to “alleviate those intolerable conditions about which we have complained in vain for too many years.” The program for the day included various speakers and artistic shows, but the esteemed guest was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was to meet the march and then speak at Cobo Arena.

As one of the largest demonstrations to date, the Detroit Walk to Freedom saw approximately 125,000 people march from Woodward Avenue to Cobo Hall. The Free Press reported that only Labor Day demonstrations of the 1930s and a 1936 rally in support of President Franklin Roosevelt attracted anywhere near the numbers seen with the Walk to Freedom. Among the marchers were the Detroit Civil Rights leaders Rev. Albert Cleage, Rev. C. L. Franklin (Chairman of the DCHR), Benjamin McFall (Director of DCHR), State Auditor General Billie S. Farnum, UAW President Walter Reuther, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, former Governor John B. Swainson, Congressman Charles Diggs, representatives of the then-Governor George Romney, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself.

The Detroit Free Press front page on the morning of the event reported on the plans for the demonstration alongside a photograph of singing protestors in Dearborn, Michigan: “Thousands of Detroiters will march down Woodward” in support of the racial equality. [4] Governor Romney—who could not attend the march because of his religious commitments—decreed the Sunday as “Freedom March Day in Michigan.”

Detroit Free Press front page, June 24, 1963

Photos of Walk to Freedom
from Detroit Free Press,
June 24, 1963, p. 13
After the rally, both the Detroit Tribune and the Free Press commented on the success of the day. Packed from pavement to pavement, the Detroit Tribune front page reported that the “tremendous participation” signaled to the globe that African Americans would not be left behind by the united progressive action in Michigan. The “NEW DAY” was here, and Detroit would never be the same. The Detroit Free Press hailed the demonstration on its front page as a “record rights plea.” [5] The front page detailed that the march with its 125,000 participants and 15,000 spectators was the “largest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s history.” After the march, 25,000 people, 95% of whom were Black, packed Cobo Hall “to hear a rousing speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

In addition to Dr. King, the program was packed full of dignitaries of the state, African American business leaders, Civil Rights leaders, and public officials. Rev. Cleage began the speaking with a speech pledging to boycott all Detroit A&P and Kroger stores for failing to hire African Americans. Governor Romney’s message of support was booed for his failure to show up. The climax was King’s appearance, which electrified the crowds and many burst into song and cheers of “God Bless America.” After being introduced by Charles C. Diggs, Dr. King began by remarking that the peaceful march was a “magnificent demonstration of our commitment to non-violence.”

What is most often remembered about Dr. King’s speech in Detroit is that it was an early version of his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech: 

“And so this afternoon, I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers. 

I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day little white children and little N---- children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters. 

I have a dream this afternoon that one day, one day men will no longer burn down houses and the church of God simply because people want to be free. 

I have a dream this afternoon, that we will no longer face the atrocities that Emmett Till had to face or Medgar Evers had to face, that all men can live with dignity. 

I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin. 

I have a dream this afternoon, that one day right here in Detroit, N------ will 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. […] 

And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair. With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the N------ in the spiritual of old: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!”[6]

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. greeted at the airport,
Detroit Free Press, June 24, 1963, p. 3

Dr. King said that the demonstration and rally in Detroit, Michigan, on that June day in 1963 was “one of the most wonderful things that had happened in America” (Detroit Free Press, June 24, 1963, p. 3). Directly after the Walk to Freedom, Dr. King went to New York for the all-important meeting for the March on Washington. The Detroit “Great March” might have been smaller, but it was a crucial part of the Civil Rights Movement, and is often cited as the test-run for the historic March on Washington, which was highlighted by Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

For more information on the Detroit March to Freedom, children’s books about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Civil Rights in Detroit, Senator Robert P. Griffin’s thoughts on Dr. King, and the history of Detroit in the 1960s, please visit the Clarke Historical Library.

[1] Rise Up North: Detroit,

[2] In 2012, David Erdody of the Bentley Historical Library found photo negatives depicting King’s visit to Ann Arbor archived in the Bentley’s holdings.

[3] View a recording of Rachel Williams’ discussing about her graphic novel about the 1943 Detroit Uprising, Run Home if You Don’t Want to Be Killed.  

[4] View the June 23, 1963 Detroit Free Press on ProQuest, free at subscribing libraries. 

[5] View the June 24, 1963 Detroit Free Press on ProQuest, free at subscribing libraries.

[6] Full text of the speech available via links in the 2017 Michigan Radio article: See also Fox 2 Detroit's article about the Walk to Freedom speech:

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Carrie Marsh Announced as New Clarke Director

Carrie L. Marsh has been named the director of the Clarke Historical Library of Central Michigan University. She begins her duties on February 14. The announcement was made by Kathy Irwin, dean of University Libraries. A nationwide search was conducted after the August 2021 retirement of Frank Boles, who served as Clarke’s director for more than 30 years.

Marsh comes from The Claremont Colleges Library in Claremont, California, where she has served as director of Special Collections and Libraries since 2014. Her tenure in the Claremont consortium included library assistant director and head of special collections, reference librarian for the Denison Library, and special collections librarian for the Honnold/Mudd Library.

Marsh is a proud CMU alum, earning a B.A. in English and Art History in 1984, followed by a Master’s in Literature in 1986. She was a student assistant for the Park Library during her undergraduate and graduate studies. She has a Master’s in Library Science with an emphasis on special collections librarianship from the University of Arizona.

“Carrie has excellent management experience, has a track record of developing successful partnerships with college faculty, and has demonstrated a thorough understanding of DEI needs and opportunities in archives and special collections. I look forward to working with her as she advances the mission and vision of the Clarke Historical Library,” said Irwin, who led a search committee that included current faculty, library staff, and members of the Clarke Historical Library Board of Governors.

Among Marsh’s professional achievements: a collaboration that began in 2012 with Laura Stalker, former deputy director of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, to teach a course for the California Rare Book School about history, theory and practice of special collections librarianship, and, a key role in writing and collaboratively implementing a $333,574 three-year Digitizing Special Hidden Collections from a Council on Library and Information Resources grant with Pomona College and five Southern California libraries (public and academic) and the National Archives and Records Administration in Riverside, California. The “Digitizing Southern California Water Resources” project digitized materials from federal, state, and local governments, water companies, local agencies, engineers, and individuals involved in water development in the Southern California region from the 19th through the 20th centuries.

The Clarke Historical Library, founded in 1954 by a gift from Dr. Norman E. Clarke, Sr., collects, preserves, and promotes nationally recognized collections that include the history of Michigan and the Old Northwest Territory, the history of Central Michigan University, and selected topics including children's literature, campaign biographies of U.S. presidential candidates, the history of angling, and historic Michigan newspapers. The Clarke serves the needs of the CMU community, fosters scholarly activity through its collections and exhibits, and strengthens community partnerships through an active outreach program. Learn more online at Clarke Historical Library.