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Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Detroit Freedom Walk

Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Swainson, 1963(?)

For a larger view of the above image, click King and Swainson - Large View.

This month, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here, he appears with John Swainson, Michigan governor of 1961-1962. The photo is undated but was most likely taken on Sunday, June 23, 1963. On that date, Dr. King and former governor Swainson both participated in the Detroit "Walk to Freedom."

Dr. King was then in the midst of a tour (begun that spring) from California to New York. His Detroit stop proved the tour's biggest success. Police estimated the Freedom Walk crowd at 125,000. The day after the event, The Detroit Free Press labeled it "the largest civil rights demonstration in the nation's history." The walk began at Woodward and Adelaide and continued down Woodward to Cobo Hall. It lasted about an hour and a half, as marchers carried signs and sang songs (Songs included "We Shall Overcome" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic.").

The Detroit Council for Human Rights organized the Walk. The Council's director, Benjamin McFall, and its Chairman, Rev. Clarence L. Franklin, marched in a line with King and Swainson. That line also included Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther and State Auditor General Billie S. Farnum. (Then-current governor George Romney, a Mormon who avoided public appearances on Sundays, did not directly participate. He did, however, proclaim the day "Freedom March Day in Michigan.")

At the walk's conclusion, King gave a speech at Cobo Hall. According to the contemporary Detroit Free Press report, approximately 25,000 people sat in attendance, with African Americans comprising about ninety-five percent of that total. They listened as King spoke of non-violence and an end to racial segregation. The June 24, 1963 Free Press report notes that King "ended his speech by telling of a dream." According to the Free Press, King described his dream of whites and blacks "walking together hand in hand, free at last."

In his book King: A Biography, David Levering Lewis states that King repeated the phrase "I have a dream" several times during that Cobo Hall speech. Lewis notes that when King addressed a crowd in Washington, D.C. two months later, he "kept the refrain from the Detroit speech: I have a dream." (See Lewis' King: A Biography, second edition, Urbana: University of Illinois, 1978, pg. 227).

King's Washington speech of August 28, 1963 became famous as his "I have a dream speech." It was a defining moment in the American civil rights movement. In one sense, however, the seeds of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s dream were planted in Michigan - in Detroit's Cobo Hall.

-Bob Garrett, Archivist
E-mail:garrettr1@michigan.gov


An article on the Detroit Walk to Freedom appeared in the Summer 2004 issue of Michigan History for Kids.

The Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing contains exhibits that span Michigan's history. The 1960s gallery captures the time period detailed above. For a virtual look at this gallery, click The 1960s at the Michigan Historical Museum. For further information on the Michigan Historical Museum click Michigan Historical Museum to visit the Museum's home page.


Click Archives of Michigan to visit the Archives of Michigan home page.

Click Image of the Month Archives to access former Image of the Month pages.

Archives of Michigan
Michigan Library and Historical Center
702 W. Kalamazoo Street
Lansing, MI 48913
Phone: (517) 373-1408
E-mail: archives@michigan.gov

This page is the Archives Image of the Month page for January 2009.

Updated 12/18/2008


Michigan Historical Center
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