Civil rights leader first delivered iconic speech in the Motor City in 1963; those who were there recall 'formative moment'
DETROIT — Sixty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech for the first time in the Motor City, Detroiters congregated together again to recreate the freedom walk to honor King’s legacy and acknowledge that his work is still not complete.
While King’s speech has become synonymous with his March on Washington, which took place in August 1963, he first delivered the speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963. At the time, 125,000 Detroiters marched down Woodward Avenue, including many Catholics.
As Detroiters marched down Woodward again June 24, King’s voice rang out from a solitary megaphone held up by a bystander, a reminder of the historic demonstration 60 years ago.
Beginning at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Woodward in Midtown Detroit, attendees young and old made their way downtown, ending the approximately 1.7-mile walk with a freedom rally in Hart Plaza, where a brand new statue of King was unveiled just the day before.
Several Catholics led by Msgr. Chuck Kosanke gathered at the former St. Patrick Church before joining the rest of the crowd. Among the group was Marge Sears, a parishioner at Gesu Parish who participated in the march in 1963. Sears also participated in the 50th anniversary walk in 2013 and was determined to be present again.
In 1963, Sears was a high school student from Livonia. Her peers invited her to attend the march. Sears was hesitant at first — her parents would never let her go.
"(My peers) said, ‘Well, don’t tell them,’” Sears explained to Detroit Catholic. "So I went, and I remember it being hot. I don’t remember a lot about Dr. King’s speech, but it was a formative moment (for me). From that point on, I was really involved in civil rights actions.”
Sears attended this year's march in a wheelchair pushed by her husband. She currently has trouble with her legs, but she wouldn’t let that stop her from being present.
“I think there is so much work that needs to be done, even though there have been advancements since then, but with job parity with housing and health care, with even the environment — areas where a lot of Black people live are too close to polluters. There’s a higher incidence of asthma, and I just think systemically, we still have a long way to go,” Sears explained.
“Growing up in the suburbs, you didn’t even get to see Black people that often, and to such a variety of people all marching for the same issue was very impactful for me, especially as a young person,” Sears added.
Her experience at the first march inspired her to pursue a degree in religious studies from the University of Detroit Mercy, where she studied Catholic social teachings.
“That just reinforced all the things that I learned from that first experience about the need of people of faith to reach out,” Sears said. “The issue is still there. And I think no matter what, people need to show up and walk the walk and not just talk about it.”
The Freedom Walk was part of a more significant jubilee celebration June 22-25 led by the Detroit branch of the NAACP. Mable Jones, a member of St. Moses the Black Parish in Detroit, served on the executive committee for the NAACP jubilee weekend, and also on the NAACP's religious committee.
Jones said the committee began reaching out to religious groups across the city months ago to invite them to participate in the walk.
“There was always a Catholic presence at Dr. King's walks; I don’t care what state, what city they were in, and we have to continue that,” Jones said. “The work that Dr. Martin Luther King started is still needed, and so it’s important that we have our presence out here today to commemorate the walk and to let people know that we’re still working on the goals of Dr. Martin Luther King.”
Msgr. Kosanke, rector of the Basilica of Ste. Anne, said participation in the walk is an occasion for Catholics to show solidarity and evangelize.
“I think this is an occasion for the Catholic Church to publicly witness to our teaching that racism of any form is a sin because it does not respect the dignity of the human person as created by God, and of course, the Declaration of Independence follows up on that with ‘All people are created equal,’” Msgr. Kosanke said.
It is crucial to witness publicly to this belief, Msgr. Kosanke added.
“We are excited to participate in this as a way of affirming the Catholic Church’s desire to eradicate racism within our midst and to rejoin our fellow African-American Catholics and others to give that public witness,” Msgr. Kosanke said.
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