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Opinion: MLK changed Detroit – but only after Detroit changed him

Detroit Free Press
Jan. 16, 2022
Jamon Jordan

Fifty-three years ago this March, just three weeks before his assassination in Memphis, Martin Luther King came to one of America’s  wealthiest, whitest suburbs to deliver a speech entitled “The Other America.”

Sponsored by the Grosse Pointe Human Relations Council and picketed by a right-wing extremist group known as Breakthrough, the event at Grosse Pointe High School (now known as Grosse Pointe South) would turn out to be King’s last visit to the Detroit area.

But it was not his first.

King, already a precocious freshman at Morehouse College, was just 16 years old in 1945 when he accompanied his father to the annual meeting of the National Baptist Convention in Detroit, where the senior MLK had been invited to deliver a sermon at Second Baptist Church.

Like his father-in-law, A.D. Williams, Martin Luther King Sr. was a distinguished and influential leader in the Baptist Convention, and over the years he would return to Michigan often for speaking engagements, often with his son in tow. But the 1945 visit provided MLK Jr. with an early opportunity to see how the nascent struggle for Black civil rights was unfolding in the northern United States.

North and south

Born and raised in Atlanta, the teenaged King was familiar with racial discrimination as it was practiced in the Jim Crow South. But many Black Americans faced as much hostility from their white neighbors in Michigan and other northern states:

  • Five years before the Kings’ 1945 visit, the Birwood Wall was erected on Detroit’s northwest side to separate a housing development for white homeowners from an African American neighborhood.
  • In 1942, National Guard troops were summoned to the intersection of Nevada and Fenelon when a white mob attacked Black defense factory workers trying to move into the Sojourner Truth Homes, a housing project financed by the federal government and the Detroit Housing Commission.
  • A year later, 34 Detroiters, including 25 African Americans, were killed in a deadly riot. Seventeen of the victims — all Black — were killed by members of the Detroit Police Dept.
  • And in 1944, the year before 16-year-old KIng’s first visit to Detroit, white neighbors sued in an attempt to stop a Black couple, Orsel and Minnie McGhee, from moving into the house they’d purchased at 4626 Seebaldt St. The case would eventually reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

‘Colored Night’

When the MLK Sr. and Jr. arrived for the Baptists’ annual meeting, Detroit’s neighborhoods and schools were still segregated. Most hotels and downtown bars refused to serve African-American guests, and Black people were not allowed to sit in the stands at Briggs Stadium, where the Detroit Tigers played. The city’s most popular dance hall, the Graystone Ballroom, welcomed African American patrons only on Monday, also known as “Colored Night.”

Later in 1945, Sarah Elizabeth Ray, a young Black woman was removed from the SS Columbia, one of the two boats that ferried visitors to the Boblo Island amusement park, because she was “colored.” Her lawsuit alleging illegal discrimination by the Boblo Excursion Company would also reach the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled in her favor.

In the decade following their first father-son visit, MLK Sr. arranged for his son to speak in dozens of Detroit pulpits. In 1954, Rev. A.A. Banks, the pastor of Second Baptist, invited the younger KIng to deliver a guest sermon, entitled “Rediscovering Lost Values,” at the church he’d first visited as a teenager.

King told the congregation he was humbled he was to speak at Second Baptist, Michigan’s oldest Black church. But he added that he’d returned to the city so often over the previous nine years to visit the family of his father’s sister, Woodie Clara King Brown, “that Detroit is really something of a second home for me, and I don’t feel too much a stranger here.”

Then, after thanking his hosts, he got to the meat of his sermon.

“There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong.” he began. “I don’t think we have to look too far to see that.”

Surely few Black Detroiters took issue with his assessment. Five years earlier, the National Housing Act of 1949 had heralded the beginning of a federal government campaign to demolish big city slums. Over the next several years, more than 100,000 African American Detroiters — including many in the Second Baptist congregation — would be displaced by the demolition of the city’s Black Bottom neighborhood.

Bombing churches, clearing slums

The mid-50s marked the beginning of King’s meteoric rise to national prominence. In September 1954, he became the pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he played a leading role in a 382-day bus boycott. Second Baptist Church sent the Montgomery Improvement Association $2600 (about $25,000 in today’s dollars) to support the boycott effort and dispatched an additional $1500 (about $14,000 today) after King’s home and a number of other churches and homes were bombed.

In a letter thanking the Detroit congregation, King wrote that “Second Baptist Church has contributed more to the work of the Montgomery Improvement Association than any single church in America… Your moral support and Christian generosity are of inestimable value in the continuance of our humble efforts…”

After the Montgomery Bus Boycott, U.S. Rep. Charles Diggs Jr., the first African American elected to the US Congress from Michigan, took King on a tour of Detroit’s Paradise Valley neighborhood, which was being decimated to make way for the I-375 and I-75 freeways. It was another lesson in the young minister’s continuing education about urban renewal.

The promulgation of federal development policies and financing incentives was not as dramatic as the segregation of southern lunch counters, buses and public restrooms, but those policies perpetuated racial inequities and exacerbated the growing wealth gap between Black and white residents in metropolitan areas like Detroit.

In September 1958, King returned to Detroit for the annual National Baptist Convention. It took place at King Solomon Baptist Church, which had moved into a building at 14th Street and Marquette that had originally housed the all-white Temple Baptist Church. The latter had moved its congregation steadily westward as the surrounding neighborhood became more integrated, eventually relocating to Plymouth.

In a keynote speech given at an auditorium across the street from King Solomon, King recounted the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott for a rapt Detroit audience. Three days later, he was attending a Harlem book signing for his just-published “Stride Toward Freedom” when a mentally unstable African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry stepped forward and stabbed him, nearly ending King’s life.

But the preacher survived, and his relationship with Black Detroiters continued.

Marching to the Motown sound

A year after King’s speech King Solomon, a record company that would grow to be the most famous Black-owned business in Detroit’s history opened its doors about eight blocks from the church. Over the next few years, Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records signed Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and the Temptations.

In 1962, Gordy’s older sister, Esther Gordy Edwards, began talking to KIng about producing recordings of his speeches. When King agreed to deliver a major address in Detroit the following year, Motown Records struck a deal to record and release it.

The Detroit speech was integral to a campaign two Detroit ministers had launched to augment and complement the Southern Freedom Movement already underway in the South.  Rev. Clarence LaVaughn Franklin and Rev. Albert Cleage Jr,  hoped a mass march and demonstration in the Motor City would focus attention on housing segregation, school inequality, job discrimination, police brutality. and other forms of racial discrimination flourishing in northern cities. Cleage, in particular, hoped the Detroit march would push the civil rights movement in a more Black nationalist direction..

But when Cleage insisted that the march should be restricted to Black participants, the Detroit Branch of the NAACP threatened to boycott it, led by its president, attorney Edward Turner, and executive secretary Arthur Johnson, who had been King’s Morehouse College schoolmate. The Baptist Ministerial Alliance, a group led by Rev. Roy Allen of Chapel Hill Missionary Baptist Church, also objected to Cleage’s vision of an all-Black march.

King resolved the standoff by throwing his support behind Franklin, and the march was integrated, with UAW leader Walter Reuther, and Detroit mayor Jerome Cavanaugh being added as march leaders.

Before and after

Held on June 23, 1963, the Detroit Walk to Freedom attracted 125,000 participants and stood as the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history until it was eclipsed two months later by the March on Washington. It was also a dress rehearsal, including parts of the  “I Have a Dream” speech King would deliver in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial that August.

But the MLK who went to Washington that August was more than the southern civil rights leader who had first visited Detroit 18 years earlier. After witnessing the northern states’ distinctive version of Jim Crow, he had begun to inveigh against the housing discrimination, school inequality and police brutality experienced by Black urban residents. In the Cobo Hall warm-up for his iconic speech on the National Mall, he urged Detroiters to combat “the de facto segregation” of the North.

By the time he was assassinated, King bore even less resemblance to the Nobel Prize-winning preacher of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and the 1963 March on Washington. The King of 1968 was the Vietnam war-opposing, Poor People’s Movement-leading champion of fair housing, a guaranteed income, and a massive federal plan to end poverty. By the time he gave his “The Other America” speech in Grosse Pointe, he had embraced a larger vision of radical social transformation and a daring interracial movement against racial and economic inequality.

After King’s assassination in April 1968, uprisings erupted all over the county. Later the same month, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed racist housing practices by homeowners, real estate agents, banks and the government itself.

Martin Luther King had changed America. But he had done so only after Detroit had changed him and endowed him with a more complex and sophisticated understanding of the challenges confronting Black Americans.

Jamon Jordan is the City of Detroit’s Official Historian and the founder of the Black Scroll Network History & Tours. He teachers a class on Detroit history at the University of Michigan. 

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