and other civil rights leaders in Detroit in 1963. He previewed his famous
“I Have a Dream” speech before delivering it in Washington two months later.
The “I have a dream” speech Martin Luther King Jr. delivered 49 years ago last week was not the first version ever spoken before a massive audience. The video below shows King inspiring a mixed-race crowd on June 23, 1963 in Detroit as part of the “Walk for Freedom” that drew 125,000 participants.
The event was organized by the Detroit Council for Human Rights to commemorate the anniversary of the racial violence that erupted in Detroit two decades before that had left 34 dead, 433 injured and 1,800 mostly African American people arrested. The “Walk for Freedom” was initiated because many of “the same basic, underlying causes” of the 1943 disturbance were “still present.” Those included segregated housing for which blacks paid more to buy or rent than was charged for similar dwellings in white areas of the city and its surrounding area. The influx of tens of thousands of war workers to Motor City had made affordable housing a scarce commodity.
National and state leaders who marched along with King in ’63 included United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther, former Michigan Gov. John B. Swainson and Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanagh. Afterward, King addressed thousands of those who had marched to Cobo Hall:
I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
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.
Although a few unions, like the Teamsters, had recruited African Americans at the beginning of the 20th Century, it wasn’t until sleeping-car porters organized in 1925 that most unions began opening their rolls across the color line. Today, 20 percent of black workers are unionized, a significantly larger percentage than the overall population. That membership pays off: Black union members’ median salaries are 36 percent more than non-members’.
While most of King’s activism focused on civil-rights battles, he was no stranger to the struggles of workers of all colors. Though he never delivered a Labor Day speech, he spoke many times about the importance of workers being organized. Five years after the Detroit speech, as part of the Poor People’s Campaign for which King was much criticized inside and outside the civil rights movement, he was in Memphis, Tennessee to meet with local leaders and speak publicly in support of a sanitation workers’ strike. It was there, just three weeks after his powerful March 18, 1968 speech that he caught the bullet that took his life.
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