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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Michigan connections

Martin Luther King Jr marching in Detroit
Rev. Martin Luther King marches down Woodward Ave. during the Walk to Freedom on June 23, 1963.
Credit Screen shot from youtube.com / YouTube

There will be lectures, marches, and celebrations across the state recognizing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. today. The federal holiday marks King’s birthday, January 15th.

The nation celebrates it on the third Monday of January. This year, he would have been ninety years old.

King had several connections with the state of Michigan. He debuted the iconic “I have a dream speech” in Detroit in June, 1963 - months before the historic March on Washington.

It was part of the “Great Walk to Freedom,” a practice run for Washington, D.C. Over 125,000 people traveled down Woodward Avenue, led by King himself. Other figures who accompanied the crowd included the father of Aretha Franklin, a chair in the Detroit Council for Human Rights, several Michigan politicians, and union leaders such as Walter Reuther. 

Elizabeth James works in the Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Michigan. She attended his 1963 speech in Detroit.

"When he first spoke it here in Michigan, and then in Washington, it was calling to all of us, to use our imaginations, to imagine something that could really make a difference for others," says James.  "And I think that's something that we really have to call upon now."

At the time, King referred to the event as “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America."

Listen to a few minutes from his speech: 

You can read it in its entirety here.

King had also visited Grosse Pointe in 1968— just three weeks before he was assassinated. In the all-white Detroit suburb, he gave a speech entitled “The Other America” in the gymnasium of Grosse Pointe South High School.

“I want to discuss the race problem tonight and I want to discuss it very honestly. And so I want to use as a title for my lecture tonight, ‘The Other America,’” he said to a crowd of 2000 people. 

And I use this title because there are literally two Americas. Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one.

You can hear one of the organizer’s thoughts about it here. This organizer, Jude Hutteman, said that while Detroit newspapers were on strike, there was not much need for a publicity push because “the town was alive with the news that Dr. King was coming.” 

Despite being heckled by a right wing group that brought 100 or so people, King powered on to emphasize the importance of unity between white and black Americans. 

He ended his speech with these words:

“With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when all of God's children all over this nation - black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old negro spiritual, 'Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty, We are Free At Last.'"

Dr. King was a Baptist preacher and Nobel peace laureate. He led the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination in 1968.

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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