Detroit MLK Day rally highlights Selma, Ala.

MLK Day march in Detroit on Jan. 19.WW photo: Abayomi Azikiwe

MLK Day march in Detroit on Jan. 19.
WW photo: Abayomi Azikiwe

This year’s “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rally and March” commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Selma campaign that created the conditions for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The program was

organized by the Detroit MLK Committee, a coalition of community

organizations and churches involved in the ongoing movements for human rights, peace and self-determination.

On Jan. 19, a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the sanctuary of the Central United Methodist Church, where Dr. King had spoken on numerous occasions between 1958 and 1968. Just three weeks prior to his assassination, on March 14, 1968, he addressed the city of Detroit at his annual Lent sermon delivered for the last time.

The 2015 gathering was one of the largest since 2004, when the event was founded, organized by the Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI) during the first year. In 2005, a broader alliance was formed which has continued to plan the gathering since then.

The meeting was called with the theme “50 Years Since Selma: The Struggle for  Democracy, Peace and Social Justice Continues.” A program introduction read, “We are recognizing the valiant contributions of the struggle for voting rights by Dr. King … and others who paved the way for the advances gained during the 1960s and 1970s.

“Nonetheless, today we are facing the most profound challenge to the status of civil rights, human rights and economic justice since the martyrdom of Dr. King in 1968. In the state of Michigan, fundamental rights to a living wage, collective bargaining, municipal pensions, public services and basic democratic rights have been eroded.”

Community speaks, activists honored

The new pastor at Central United Methodist Church, the Rev. Dr. Jill Hardt Zundel, welcomed people, emphasizing the long tradition of support for social justice movements, the working class and the poor. The church provides regular meals, clothing and other services to homeless people living in the downtown area.

The program paid a special tribute to the late Judge Claudia House Morcom, who died last August, with talks by Dr. Gloria Aneb House, her niece by marriage; Cheryl LaBash of the National Network on Cuba, which Judge Morcom worked with to free the now-released Cuban Five as well as to ease the embargo against Cuba; and Carol Lane, a supporter of Cuba and a veteran peace activist in Detroit. Judge Morcom had been a major supporter of Detroit MLK Day, attending every year.

Cecily McClellan of the Detroit Active and Retired Employees Association (DAREA), which is appealing the theft of pension funds and health care programs from former municipal workers, acknowledged Morcom’s pioneering legal work during the Civil Rights Movement and decades-long political activism. McClellan stressed that the imposition of emergency management and bankruptcy was merely a cover to loot over $6 billion in pension funds in the city of Detroit.

Frank Hammer and Melvin Thompson, past presidents of UAW Locals 909 and 140A, read solidarity statements in support of injured Colombian GM autoworkers. With GM world headquarters located just six blocks away from the rally, Thompson and Hammer reflected on the important role of workers in the United States in demanding that industry bosses fulfill their obligations to provide assistance to the injured Colombian workers.

Councilwoman Mary Sheffield presented official city of Detroit recognition awards to Dr. Silas Norman, the associate dean of Admissions at the Wayne State University Medical School, who had served as director of the SNCC voting registration campaign in Selma between 1963 and 1965; Martha Prescod Noonan, a veteran SNCC field secretary in Alabama and Mississippi, an educator and co-editor of the seminal “Hands on the Freedom Plow” book published four years ago by the women of SNCC; and the Rev. Edith Woolen-Worthy, the chairperson of the Social Justice Committee at Hartford Memorial Baptist Church.

Peoples’ attorney Alice Jennings addressed the ongoing struggle for water rights in Detroit. Jennings was the lead counsel in the class-action lawsuit filed in bankruptcy court during July 2014, demanding a moratorium on water shutoffs and the adoption of a genuine affordability plan for residents. Jennings has filed an appeal in federal court after bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes refused to issue an order to halt the termination of services to the working people and poor of Detroit.

Also, attorney Jerry Goldberg of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition spoke to the need to continue the struggle against the banks. Goldberg intervened in the city’s bankruptcy on behalf of retired city employee David Sole, and by doing so, was able to put emergency management and the financial institutions on trial.

Goldberg conveyed that the city is facing yet another burgeoning crisis, with 62,000 property tax foreclosures looming while the right-wing state government refuses to utilize hundreds of millions of dollars of federal housing assistance funds that could pay all delinquent residential tax bills and therefore avert a major crisis of evictions and displacement. He called for an immediate moratorium on all foreclosures in Detroit.

The meeting also focused on the Rev. Edward Pinkney, a political prisoner in Michigan from Berrien County in the southwest region of the state. An all-white jury found him guilty of unproven felony forgery charges related to a recall campaign against the mayor of Benton Harbor. Marcina Cole, an advocate for Rev. Pinkney, called on people to demand that the activist be released pending an appeal of his unjust convictions. Rev. Pinkney was sentenced to 30-120 months in prison and is now incarcerated in Marquette Prison, some eight hours away from his home.

Other speakers included Marian Kramer, who paid tribute to the late labor organizer Gen. Gordon Baker Jr. Pat Driscoll, a retired United Steelworkers union member, read a statement of solidarity with the Boston school bus drivers, represented by USW Local 8751. Four of Local 8751’s leaders remain terminated by Veolia Corp. after an illegal lockout during the fall of 2013.

Music during the rally was provided by the Deep River Choir, under the

direction of Ms. Bobbi Thompson. The rally ended with a send-off by the Deep River Choir, singing “This Little Light of Mine,” a freedom song utilized by the Selma campaign.

Taking to the streets: ‘Black Lives Matter’

The march through downtown was led by African-American youth who

carried a “Black Lives Matter” banner. Additional banners and signs read “Jail Killer Cops,” “Stop the Theft of Our Pensions” and “End Poverty, Racism and War.” Placards featured photographs of Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley Jones, Eric Garner and many other victims of police violence.

This demonstration went past the 36th District Court to emphasize the

crisis of foreclosures and evictions in Detroit. The court presides over thousands of evictions every year, many of which are illegal.

Then, the crowd marched on the Wayne County Jail to illustrate the crisis of mass incarceration of African-American and Latino/a youth. The demonstration continued, proceeding through the Greek Town entertainment and casino district, where people came onto the streets to watch and photograph the marchers, who extended back several blocks.

After this, the march went to the headquarters of the Detroit Water and

Sewerage Department, demanding a moratorium on shutoffs, protesting

the regionalization and attempted privatization of the publicly owned system, one of the largest in the U.S. Heading back to the church, demonstrators chanted “No justice! No peace!” “Black lives matter!” “I can’t breathe!” and other slogans.

Back at the church, a community meal had been prepared by the “Detroit

Wobbly Kitchen” and “Food Not Bombs” organizations. These groups have provided this meal for the last eleven demonstrations.

Then, a cultural program highlighting local artists was held, coordinated by Detroit poet and teacher Aurora Harris of Broadside Press.

The event is financed solely by community organizations, concerned religious groups and supportive individuals. This rally and march represents one of the largest annual gatherings of progressive forces in southeast Michigan.