Soon enough came something larger and greater — the March on Washington on Aug. 28 — and Detroit was largely forgotten. But the Walk to Freedom was first. At least 150,000 people walked down Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s main thoroughfare, on that hot summer afternoon, and although only 14,000 managed to press elbow-to-elbow into the arena to hear the speechifying at the end, a majestic wave of humanity washed across the surrounding streets and sidewalks and parking lots and lawns to listen over loudspeakers.
King spoke last, after a long-winded lineup of local politicians, ministers and labor leaders organized by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, chairman of the newly formed Detroit Council on Human Rights, pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church, and father of the soulful young rhythm and blues singer Aretha Franklin.
When, near the end, King thundered, “I have a dream,” audience members responded to the call and shouted, “Go ahead!” — and on he went. Some of his dream stanzas were nearly identical to those he would proclaim later in Washington; some more poetic, others less so. One seemed unique to that place. At one point, King spoke directly to a predominantly black Detroit audience that had endured decades of bank red-lining, exclusionary covenants and other Northern forms of de facto segregation. “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.”
Fifty years on, some parts of King’s dream are closer to reality than others, but none seems more deferred than his vision of Detroit, now a shell-shocked city on the brink of bankruptcy with long, lonesome stretches of abandoned buildings, foreclosed homes and a population devastated by joblessness. Detroit has become so synonymous with urban deterioration that it can seem too familiar, a cliche of hopelessness — a prevalent sensibility that robs people struggling to survive in Detroit, and to revive Detroit, of the respect they deserve.
Detroit has been decomposing, in a sense. All organic things decompose sooner or later, from human beings to cities, and then something new arises in their place. But they also leave important markers behind that shape the present and future. Detroit has left as many markers as any city in America. Cars, music, labor, civil rights — much of the mythical American dream was defined by this Detroit quartet. And all of them were in their fullness on that early summer day 50 years ago.