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Today in 1963: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leads massive civil rights march in Downtown Detroit

125,000 marched down Woodward Avenue

In 1963, King led 125,000+ in the March for Freedom down Woodward Ave in Detroit, pictured here. (Detroit Historical Society)
In 1963, King led 125,000+ in the March for Freedom down Woodward Ave in Detroit, pictured here. (Detroit Historical Society)

DETROIT – Although one thing Dr. King is known for is his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in August of 1963, he lead a march in Detroit two months prior.

Detroit’s Walk to Freedom

The June 1963 march in Detroit was, at the time, the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history, with 125,000 marching down Woodward Avenue.

The crowd carried signs and moved in relative silence as tens of thousands more watched from sidewalks and buildings.

Here’s more background from Wayne State’s Walter P. Reuther Library:

The route of the march started at a twenty-one-block staging area near Adelaide Street. It followed Woodward Avenue to Jefferson Avenue, 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 African American, filled the building to capacity.

Thousands of demonstrators who could not find a seat spilled onto the lawns and malls outside, and listened to the programming through loudspeakers. Inside, public officials, African American business and civic leaders, and 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. (See video here)

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 Kennedy 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.

READ ON: In pictures: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. visits University of Michigan in 1962

Tonight on Local 4/WDIV, a primetime special, “Spirit of Detroit: Fulfilling the Dream” - confronting racism head on in the hopes of educating ourselves and helping to make a real difference in our communities. This live, one-hour special airs tonight at 10 p.m. It will include a live interview with Martin Luther King III. You can also watch it on ClickOnDetroit. (More about the special here).


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