Detroit’s Walk to Freedom, June 1963

Before his iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in Washington, the Rev. Martin Luther King gave a similar speech in Detroit, calling it the ‘greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States.’
Martin Luther King Jr. leads residents through Detroit during the historic Walk to Freedom. In front of King are Detroit Police Inspector George Harge (left) and Benjamin McFall (right), a prominent Detroit mortician and then-co-chair of the Detroit Council for Human Rights. // Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On June 23, 1963, 20 years after the deadly race riot that began on Belle Isle, an estimated 125,000 peaceful civil rights demonstrators participated in the Walk to Freedom led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other community leaders.

The group marched for nearly a mile down Woodward Avenue to Cobo Arena, where King delivered refrains similar to the “I have a dream” portion of his famous speech given two months later at the March on Washington.

The Walk to Freedom was organized principally by the Rev. C.L. Franklin — the father of singer Aretha Franklin — and the Rev. Albert Cleage Jr., who, with other planners, formed the Detroit Council for Human Rights (or DCHR), which mobilized participants for the event.

The purpose was to speak out against segregation, raise awareness of employment and housing discrimination, and obtain financial support for King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

With the sun shining on a beautiful June day, at 3 p.m., the predominantly Black crowd became nearly a mile deep and began the Walk to Freedom at Adelaide Street and Woodward Avenue near present-day Little Caesars Arena.

Those leading the parade, with arms often locked together, included King, Franklin, Cleage, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther, Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, Black activist James Del Rio, prominent mortician and DCHR co-Chair Benjamin McFall, U.S. Rep. Charles C. Diggs Jr., and former Michigan Gov. John Swainson.

Accompanied by over 500 police officers, the massive crowd, which included members of churches, labor unions, civic groups, and schools, carried various civil rights signs while breaking out in songs, among them “We Shall Overcome” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Elliott Hall, who had just finished his second year at Wayne State University Law School, marched with his wife while carrying signs as part of the organization Congress of Racial Equality.

“It was a peaceful, energetic march and just a mass of people,” says the pioneering Hall, who later became president of the NAACP’s Detroit branch, the first Black corporation counsel for Detroit, the first Black chief assistant prosecutor for Wayne County, and the first Black vice president at Ford Motor Co.

A crowd of 25,000 packed the then-3-year-old Cobo Hall to capacity. “Because we were so far behind, starting out on Woodward just south of Warren, we had no shot of getting inside Cobo Hall,” Hall says. “However, we were able to hear Dr. King’s speech through loudspeakers set up outside.”

He says that most of the marchers, as far as he could see, stayed outside listening to the program, which was emceed by the Rev. Franklin and included prayer, music, and speeches from various civic leaders, beginning with Cavanagh, who provided the city’s formal welcome.

The crowd inside and outside applauded the dynamic 34-year-old civil rights leader as he stepped up to the microphone to deliver a stirring 30-minute speech.

“I cannot begin to tell you the deep joy that comes to my heart as I participate with you in what I consider the largest and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States,” King said. “And I can assure you that what has been done here today will serve as a source of inspiration for all of the freedom-loving people of this nation.”

Near the end, the great orator began to recite 10 “I have a dream” verses before concluding: “With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, we are free at last!’”

The crowd then rose as one in thunderous applause.

“We left in high spirits after hearing Dr. King,” Hall says. “The experience gave us tremendous hope for the future because of the march, our activism, and the work of Dr. King.”

Motown Records founder Berry Gordy recorded the speech and produced an album on the Tamla Motown label titled The Great March to Freedom: Rev. Martin Luther King Speaks. It was released in August 1963. Motown later quickly produced an album called The Great March on Washington featuring the speeches from that day.

A portion of the royalties from the albums supported the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at King’s direction.

Four days after the Detroit march, Cavanagh spoke at the National Newspaper Publishers Association convention in Detroit and praised the Walk to Freedom: “Just last Sunday, Detroit allowed the nation and the world to see that men of goodwill, no matter what their color, can band together peacefully to protest the stifling evil of prejudice.”

This story is from the June 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.