The July 1963 march in Detroit was, at the time, the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history, with 125,000 marchers on Woodward Avenue. ( Irina Qiwi /Shutterstock.com)

Before the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s historical “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, there was Detroit’s “Great Walk to Freedom.” It’s part of King’s rich legacy in Detroit  — and a reminder he was often accused of being a dangerous rabble-rouser.  

The July 1963 march in Detroit was, at the time, the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history, with 125,000 marchers on Woodward Avenue. The speech he gave in Detroit covered the same themes — calling for the civil and economic rights for Black and other people of color. The Detroit speech contained many of the same phrases of the speech that King would deliver in Washington two weeks later.

Here’s an audio recording of King’s Detroit speech. His masterful delivery, his ability to weave big sociopolitical themes into a relatable narrative, and the crowd’s electrifying reaction are all on display. Of course, it was a risk to march and speak out for civil rights. This video shares the experiences of several Detroiters who recall that not everyone welcomed King to Detroit. 

‘Other America’ speech at Grosse Pointe South

It’s not the only memorable speech King gave in the area. On March 14, 1968, he gave a speech at Grosse Pointe High School, (now called Grosse Pointe South), the wealthy white city bordering Detroit. Organizers of the event faced death threats.

During his speech, King was repeatedly heckled. Someone in the crowd called him a traitor.

At the time, King had declared his opposition to the Vietnam War. He began to talk more about the “two Americas” to highlight the widening poverty gap in the nation as a root of inequality. 

He gave a similar speech to Stanford University in April 1967. Here’s a video of that speech and a transcript of the Grosse Pointe speech. 

Grosse Pointe recently installed a historic marker to commemorate the speech at the high school and is planning a dedication ceremony in the fall of 2021. 

The Grosse Pointe speech was one of King’s last public speeches before his assassination three weeks later in Memphis. He was 39 years old. 

Local MLK holiday events 2020 

All events take place on Monday, Jan. 18 unless otherwise noted.

MLK Day at The Wright 

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History

315 E. Warren Ave. Detroit.

All day series of events, both online and in-person, including virtual exhibitions, screenings of the films “The First Rainbow Coalition” and “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Movement.” At 1 p.m, a virtual keynote speech by PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor.

More info here.

Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit’s Variation of a Dream

Jan. 16-18. A three-day virtual event featuring dance, music and other performances based on the work of Langston Hughes and King.

Final day includes a screening at Ford Drive-In Theatre, Dearborn. 

More info here

Hope United Methodist Church’s Driving for Justice Parade

10 a.m.-noon

Hope United Methodist

26275 Northwestern Hwy., Southfield

Parade starts at 9 at Hope United and ends at Southfield Parks and Recreation.

More info here.

Triumph Church Drive-In Prayer Breakfast

9:30 a.m-11 a.m. 

Guest speaker: President and CEO of Henry Ford Health System, Wright Lassiter III

Triumph Church – North Campus

15600 J L Hudson Drive, Southfield

More info here.

Martin Luther King Jr. Annual Memorial Mass

Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament

Prelude: 10:45 am. Mass: 11:00 am-noon.

9844 Woodward Ave. 

Limited seated, event also live-streamed.

More info here

Detroit Historical Society’s “MLK Streets, More Than A Name.”

Virtual event, 1 to 3 p.m.

Panel discussion and short film. The Black Historic Sites Committee and the Detroit Historical Society take a look how race, geography played a role in naming streets after MLK. And whether the streets have lived up to his legacy and dreams.

More info here.

Wayne State University’s MLK Tribute

Speaker: Author, chef, activist Caroline Randall Wiliams 

Virtual event 1 p.m, replayed at 7 p.m. 

More info here.

18th Annual MLK Day Rally and Cultural Program

Virtual event, noon-3 p.m.

Sponsor: Detroit MLK Day Committee

Streamed online via YouTube. More info here.

Louis Aguilar is BridgeDetroit’s senior reporter. He covered business and development for the Detroit News, and is a former reporter for the Washington Post.

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1 Comment

  1. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left a reminder that we should abolish nuclear weapons. In 1957, he said, “I definitely feel that the development and use of nuclear weapons should be banned.”
    A step in that direction will be taken on January 22 when the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will enter into force. Over 80 countries have signed the Treaty, which makes nuclear weapons illegal. The Treaty puts nuclear arsenals in the same forbidden category as land mines, chemical and biological weapons, and poison gas.
    Nuclear bombs are the most destructive, inhumane, and indiscriminate weapons ever created. A single nuclear bomb dropped on Detroit could kill millions of people. A nuclear war would disrupt earth’s climate and cause widespread famine.
    Congress needs to embrace the Treaty and halt the “modernization” of our entire nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon’s plans contribute to an arms race, and taxpayers cannot afford to pay for new nuclear bombs and missiles.
    The Detroit Area Peace with Justice Network will celebrate the Treaty on Friday, January 22, outside the Ferndale First United Methodist Church, 22331 Woodward, from 4:30 to 6:00 pm. Nukes are now illegal!

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