Dr. King’s Detroit Legacy

Amy Barczy

| 3 min read

The city of Detroit has a deep connection to the civil rights movement – especially to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King built a legacy in Detroit, reportedly growing connections with Berry Gordy Jr., founder of Motown Records, and with the United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther. Those relationships helped set the stage for some of the biggest moments in the civil rights movement in Detroit.
Here are some of the major ways King influenced the movement in the Motor City, according to the Detroit Historical Society.

Preview of 'I Have a Dream'

On June 23, 1963, more than 125,000 people gathered with King for the Walk to Freedom on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. It was considered the largest civil rights march to date at the time. The march was organized by the Detroit Council for Human Rights – led by the Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha Franklin.
Later that evening, King delivered what is considered to be an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech first in Detroit at Cobo Hall, now Huntington Place, before giving his historic address in August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

Supporting protestors in Selma

In 1965, organized protests by civil rights leaders in Alabama confronted the lack of voting rights for Black Americans. The first march from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965, was peaceful until protestors encountered police on the Edmund Pettus Bridge – where law enforcement beat and injured protestors, including the John Lewis. Dr. King quickly organized for a second march – and demonstrations supporting the protestors and their cause joined in support in cities across the country – including Detroit.
Thousands marched in Detroit on March 9, 1965, in support of the Selma protests. It was the same day King led the symbolic march to the Pettus Bridge in Alabama. Here in Detroit, civil rights leaders and activists marched along Woodward Avenue along with Michigan Governor George Romney and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh.

Rallying for equality

Three years after leading the Walk to Freedom in Detroit, King returned to speak at the “We Rally for Freedom” event at Cobo Hall on June 19, 1966.
An event program in the archive collections of the Detroit Historical Society features signatures from Dr. King, United Auto Workers’ President Reuther and Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams. The main illustration on the cover is a drawing of the first African American student to be admitted to the University of Mississippi, which was a segregated institution at the time.
A statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is located in Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit.

Honoring King’s legacy

A large aluminum bust of Dr. King sits in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park on the corner of West Grand Boulevard and Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit near the Motown Museum. It was installed in 1981.
Last year in June 2023, hundreds of people gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of the Walk to Freedom in Detroit. Some of the people in attendance had participated in the original walk with Dr. King. After the walk ended, a new MLK statue was unveiled in Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit.
Photo credit: Amy Barczy/BCBSM

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