“I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.” – Martin Luther King Jr., June 23, 1963, Detroit.
It’s hard to imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. would think of Detroit today – 50 years after his famous “March to Freedom” speech at Cobo Hall.
Since then, Detroit’s population has dropped from 1.6 million to 740,000. Nearly 400 people were murdered last year. Half the population is illiterate, and schools are virtual dropout factories. Basic services like police and fire protection, streetlights and blight removal are abysmal.
For every four Detroiters, there is only one job.
On June 23, 1963, nearly a quarter million people marched down Woodward to Cobo Hall demanding equal rights and jobs, locking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome.” It was there that King delivered his first “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King said. “And we’ve got to come to see that the problem of racial injustice is a national problem. No community in this country can boast of clean hands in the area of brotherhood.”
The march was peaceful, a strong example of the city’s commitment to nonviolence, King noted.
“With all of the thousands and hundreds of thousands of people engaged in this demonstration today, there has not been one reported incident of violence,” King said. “I think this is a magnificent demonstration of our commitment to nonviolence in this struggle for freedom all over the United States, and I want to commend the leadership of this community for making this great event possible and making such a great event possible through such disciplined channels.”
King also cautioned against black militancy, which ran counter to his nonviolent teachings.
“The Negro of America is saying he’s determined to be free and he is militant enough to stand up. But this new militancy must not lead us to the position of distrusting every white person who lives in the United States. There are some white people in this country who are as determined to see the Negro free as we are to be free. This new militancy must be kept within understanding boundaries.”
Also in attendance were UAW President Walter Reuther, former Michigan Gov. John B. Swainson and Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanagh.
King called the march “one of the most wonderful things that has happened in America.”
To hear the moving speech, click here.
Click here for a listing of today’s local events.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.