Two months before Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington DC, he delivered an earlier version of it in Detroit.
On June 23, 1963, the reverend and activist participated in the Walk to Freedom, where 125,000 people marched down Woodward in a demonstration for civil rights. As Detroit’s Black population continued to grow in the 1960s, issues that were becoming more prevalent for residents included housing and job discrimination and de facto school segregation, according to the website Blackpast. The date June 23 was used to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit Race Riot.
The event was attended by influential leaders from Michigan’s Black and white communities such as Rev. C.L. Franklin, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church and father of singer Aretha Franklin; Rev. Albert B. Cleage, Jr., pastor of Central Congregational Church; Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh; Democratic Gov. John Swainson and UAW President Walter Reuther.
The march started around 3 p.m. and lasted for about 90 minutes, ending at Cobo Hall. Motown Records president Berry Gordy received permission from King to record his speech with the royalties going to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
As the Walk to Freedom nears its 60th anniversary, the Detroit branch of the NAACP will commemorate the historic event with its June Jubilee weekend next month. During a news conference Tuesday at Central United Methodist Church, chapter President Rev. Wendell Anthony announced a series of events that will take place June 22-25, beginning with the Freedom Walk Summit. Held at the northwest campus of Wayne County Community College District from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., the event will feature sessions on voting rights and mobilization, critical race theory, the civil rights movement, closing the housing wealth gap and the criminal justice system.
On June 23, the NAACP will unveil a Martin Luther King statue at Hart Plaza, with the Freedom Walk taking place at 10 a.m. the next day on Woodward and Martin Luther King Boulevard. A rally at Hart Plaza will follow. The June Jubilee will conclude with the 68th annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner at 5 p.m. June 25 at Huntington Place.
“It is important for all of us to remember that before he went to DC, he came to the big D,” Anthony said about King. “This is a continuation of a commemoration not just to honor a dream, but to help implement a plan to bring equity and opportunity to all of America’s sons and daughters. The Detroit branch, the nation’s largest branch, was in the forefront of the Walk to Freedom in 1993, 2003, 2013 and now 2023.”
Mayor Mike Duggan, who was also in attendance, said a portrait that hangs in his office is one of King marching in the Walk to Freedom.
“We made some progress, but in many ways we’re falling short of that progress,” he said. “And I think the idea of renewing what that vision was and renewing our commitment to it is a great thing.”
Jubilee to draw Sen. Raphael Warnock, other guests to Detroit
The June Jubilee will feature several guest speakers, from members of the national NAACP chapter to professors, entertainers and politicians. More guests will be announced at a later date, the organization said. The keynote speaker for the Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner will be Georgia Senator and pastor Raphael Warnock. Other guests include:
- NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson
- NAACP Vice President of Campaigns Dominik Whitehead
- Singer, educator and activist Ayanna Gregory
- Professor and critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw
- Author, professor and media personality Michael Eric Dyson
- City of Detroit historian Jamon Jordan
- Journalist and historian Ken Coleman
- Rapper Doug E. Fresh
Yvonne White, president of the NAACP Michigan State Conference, said the June Jubilee is not just an NAACP event, but a people’s event.
“This is history being made not only here in Detroit, but in the state of Michigan and throughout this entire country,” she said. “We need to show up and show out, step up and step out and make sure that our voices are heard during the June Jubilee event.”
Anthony told BridgeDetroit that the 60th anniversary of the walk serves as a reminder that the NAACP and the community have to continue to fight for civil rights, citing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of legislation last week defunding diversity programs at the state’s public universities and colleges and his ban on critical race theory being taught in schools. The Republican governor is expected to formally announce his presidential campaign on Wednesday. The national NAACP issued a travel advisory for Florida Saturday, saying the state has become “openly hostile toward African Americans, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.”
“People are trying to take us back,” he said. “They want to eliminate young people from being able to vote on college campuses. They want to take away a woman’s right to make her own healthcare decisions. They’re banning books. They’re saying that teachers should not be able to make curriculum decisions when they are not teachers and academicians themselves. They want to restrict the right to protest and they have demonstrations.
“The NAACP did not come this far to be put back on the plantation,” he said. “I don’t know about others, but I ain’t going back.”