MLK Day: Remembering Detroit's 1963 'Walk to Freedom' march

March featured early version of 'I Have a Dream' speech

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

DETROIT – Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. 

On the evening of April 4, 1968, King was shot and killed on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 39 years old. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination in 1969 -- though he later recanted his plea -- and was sentenced to 99 years in prison.

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 July 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 below)

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.

The event was commemorated with another freedom walk in 2013.

About the Author:

Ken Haddad has proudly been with WDIV/ClickOnDetroit since 2013. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters, and helps lead the WDIV Insider team. He's a big sports fan and is constantly sipping Lions Kool-Aid.