Detroit's Walk to Freedom

This Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we recall Detroit's Walk to Freedom, described by Dr. King as “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America." Dr. King led the march and shed light on the status of African Americans in northern industrial cities. Organized by the Detroit Council on Human Rights (DCHR), the Walk to Freedom was the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation’s history. Its purpose 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 march, 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 with song by the crowd 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, 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. 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 "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 the Detroit Commission on Community Relations (DCCR). If you are interested in reading about the intentions of the March to Freedom from the perspective of the African American community, we suggest consulting the Illustrated News, Rev. Cleage’s bi-weekly newspaper. To listen to Dr. King’s speech, click here for part one and here for part two of a recording made for the UAW. In addition, the Reuther Library also has a copy of the recording made by Motown Records-- a seminal moment in itself, for being the first spoken-word recording the label released. For a more comprehensive look at the civil rights movement, both locally and nationally, please visit our Equality and Civil Rights Activism Gallery. Another excellent resource is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Collection and Image Gallery. Finally, the papers of Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh provide good insight into the state of race relations within the city of Detroit in the 1960s.

Elizabeth Clemens is an Audiovisual Archivist for the Walter P. Reuther Library.