Detroit NAACP celebrates 60th anniversary of Walk to Freedom with MLK statue

Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave Detroiters a preview of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech two months before he delivered it in front of thousands of people at the March on Washington. Now, stands a monument of the civil rights icon that honors that moment and his legacy. 

The Detroit branch of the NAACP held a ceremony Friday and unveiled a statue of King at Hart Plaza. Mostly held under a large, white tent to shelter guests from the rain, the event featured appearances from city and state leaders, such as Mayor Mike Duggan, Detroit NAACP branch President Rev. Wendell Anthony, Detroit Director of Arts and Culture Rochelle Riley and Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. 

The bronze statue was created by Utah-based sculptor Stan Watts, who is known for statues of figures from Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman to George Floyd. 

After the unveiling, Watts told BridgeDetroit he was overwhelmed with emotion. He said he sculpted the statue years ago and decided to donate it to the city after having a conversation with Riley who’d mentioned that King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech during the Walk to Freedom. 

The statue, which features King with his mouth open as if he is talking, was taken from a photo of him at the March on Washington, Watts’ artistic partner Tami Brooks said.

“Artists are waiting for the call,” Watts said. “The call comes from God. And you do it because it’s the right thing to do. We’re historians and this is what I believe is the longest lasting form of medication on earth because it lasts for a thousand years. A great statue can affect you in a good way.” 

The bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. was created by Utah-based sculptor Stan Watts, who is known for statues of figures from Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman to George Floyd. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

The ceremony was part of the NAACP’s June Jubilee weekend, a series of events that lead up to the 60th anniversary of the Walk to Freedom, the civil rights demonstration where thousands of people marched down Woodward Avenue, including King. 

Riley talked Friday about the evolution of “I Have a Dream,” from when it was recited in November 1962 where her family lived in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, to when it was delivered in Detroit seven months later and then in Washington D.C. in August 1963. Riley said the monument honors the man who refused to give up the fight for civil rights and give in to violence. 

“Honoring Dr. King gives us a moment to honor Detroit because we sometimes forget how badass we are,” Riley said. “We have always been at the forefront of history being a major stop on the Underground Railroad, putting the world on wheels, saving the world as the arsenal of democracy and Detroit played a major role in the evolution of the civil rights movement that was not limited to the south. Of course Dr. King would come to Detroit. And now, thanks to this monument, he will always be in Detroit.” 

Cass Technical High School sophomore Zora Nunley is joined by Detroit’s Director of Arts and Culture Rochelle Riley to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Walk to Freedom. The event featured the unveiling of a Martin Luther King Jr. statue in Hart Plaza as part of the NAACP’s June Jubilee. (Photo by Quinn Banks)

Cass Technical High School student Zora Nunley recited “I Have a Dream” in honor of King. 

“I have a dream this afternoon that one day, right here in Detroit, negros will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money can carry them and that they will be able to get a job,” she read. 

Duggan noted that while there are several monuments downtown from war generals to priests, there are not many that celebrate Black history. That’s why he decided to hire city historian Jamon Jordan, rename Chene Park to The Aretha Franklin Amphitheater and is in the process of building a 26-mile ring (The Joe Louis Greenway) around Detroit dedicated to the legendary fighter Joe Louis. 

“For the last 10 years, the portrait behind my desk has been of Dr. King leading the march down Woodward in 1963,” Duggan said. “But after today, you won’t have to visit the mayor’s office to be reminded. Instead, every family and children in Detroit that come to the city center will be reminded that this was the place where Dr. King gave the speech that defined the aspiration for America and they can be proud that it happened in the City of Detroit.” 

Meanwhile Benson, who noted that her career began in Alabama investigating hate groups there and throughout the nation, said in Selma she was deeply instilled with a recognition of all that has been fought “so that we could have that simple promise of one person, one vote in our constitution be a reality for every citizen in this country.

“And I was instilled with a deep sense of how far we’ve yet to go to live up to that promise,” she said. 

“Even here in Michigan, even here today … just three short years ago people gathered right here outside (then named TCF Center) to stop the counting of valid votes of Detroiters here in this city whose voices deserve to be heard, whose votes must be counted and we were reminded then just as I am reminded every day of how much work we’ve still got to do here in Michigan and across the country to ensure the voting rights and the voting power of every citizen in this city and the state and in this country is realized.”

A multi-faceted battle, she said, is underway and as we celebrate the anniversary of the march, the weekend also marks the 10th anniversary of a case out of the U.S. Supreme Court where the court gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, Benson said.

“I’m proud that in a time when nationally the Voting Rights Act is diminishing in power that here in Michigan, we’re going to stand up and we’re going to take the lead,” said Benson touting a “Michigan Voting Rights Act that will restore and strengthen the rights” of the federal act that has been undermined.

State Sens. Erika Geiss, a co-sponsor of the act, and Jeremy Moss will bring hearings around the state to document the need for the law, she said. 

“This weekend we will mark this extraordinary anniversary that is also a reminder to all of us that the storm to fight democracy still rises and we must all still rise in response to that storm and fight for every voice and every vote and we will win,” Benson said. 

Husband and wife Aaron and Jasmine White were at Hart Plaza when the unveiling took place. The Detroiters wanted to keep the celebration going for Juneteenth.

Aaron said King and the Civil Rights Movement have made positive changes socially for Black people in America, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to equality.

“We’re still not 100% accepted,” Jasmine added. “There’s no reason Black people are calling the cops and getting murdered. But we have come a long way since the 1960s.”

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