Speakers from the labor movement and community organizations were featured at this year’s Detroit Martin Luther King Day. The annual event, which began in 2004 in the early phase of U.S. occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, has sought over the years to reclaim the peace and social justice legacy of the martyred civil rights leader, slain on April 4, 1968.
The Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice raised the slogan “Money for Our Cities, Not for War” in 2004. It is even more relevant now with the imposition of so-called “right-to-work” laws in the state and the imposition of emergency management and financial stability agreements.
This year’s event was organized by a broad Detroit MLK Committee. It comes 50 years after the “Great March to Freedom” in Detroit in 1963, when 250,000 or more walked down Woodward Avenue demanding jobs and civil rights. That march commemorated the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit racial disturbances.
The demonstration five decades ago, held on June 23, 1963, was where Dr. King first delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at Cobo Hall. Later that summer on Aug. 28, the historic “March on Washington” was held where Dr. King once again reiterated his dream of equality and freedom.
Diverse speakers inspire fightback spirit
This year’s large gathering of activists was held at the historic Central United Methodist Church, pastored by Rev. Edwin Rowe. The first speaker was Chris Michalakis, president of the Detroit Metro AFL-CIO, who emphasized the need to continue the campaign against draconian anti-labor bills passed by right-wing state legislators and signed by multimillionaire Gov. Rick Snyder. Other labor organizations co-sponsored and endorsed the rally, including United Auto Workers Local 140 Civil & Human Rights Committee, UAW Local 160 President Jerry Gillespie and the UAW Region 1 Women’s Council, Civil and Human Rights Division.
Additional speakers included Prof. Charles Simmons of Eastern Michigan University, a former senior correspondent for the Muhammad Speaks newspaper during the 1960s and 1970s. Rev. Sandra Simmons of Hush House, a community art gallery and historical archive, also spoke.
Later Mrs. Anita Peek, the executive director of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, announced upcoming commemorations surrounding the 100th birthday of the late Rosa Parks. Her arrest sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, ushering in the mass civil rights movement of the period. Parks lived in Detroit for many years, where she worked in the offices of Congressperson John Conyers, the architect of legislation that led to the federally recognized holiday in honor of Dr. King, beginning in 1986.
Anti-foreclosure attorneys Vanessa Fluker and Jerome Goldberg reemphasized the need for a nationwide moratorium on foreclosures and evictions. Goldberg announced an upcoming meeting of the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shut-offs, which is taking up the underlying reasons behind the current crisis in Detroit.
“It is the banks which have caused the depopulation and indebtedness of Detroit,” Goldberg told the crowd. He pointed to the need to demand a moratorium on debt-service payments to the banks and announced that his organization has submitted Freedom of Information Act requests to the city of Detroit Law Department, which would expose the criminal role of the banks as the source of the economic crisis in the municipality.
Pastor D. Alexander Bullock, of the Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, also addressed the audience. Bullock is a local leader of the Rainbow-PUSH Coalition headed by Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
The keynote speaker for the rally was Rev. C. D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Dr. King and his colleagues in 1957. Witherspoon paid tribute to Mertilla Jones, the grandmother of 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, who was slain by a Detroit police officer during a raid on the wrong apartment in May 2010. Jones was called to the pulpit and left a photograph of Aiyana there during Witherspoon’s address. Witherspoon told of a campaign against police terrorism plaguing his community in Baltimore and pledged solidarity with similar struggles in Detroit.
One of the high points of the rally was a solidarity statement delivered by injured former Colombian autoworker Jorge Parra, who has been on a hunger strike for over two months. He is demanding justice for injured workers in Colombia fired by General Motors, which is headquartered in Detroit. The company has refused to hold serious discussions over compensation for the injured workers.
The participants then marched through downtown Detroit, chanting pro-labor and community slogans. The demonstration passed the International Auto Show at Cobo Convention Center, where protesters denounced right-to-work legislation recently passed in the state.
MLK Day concluded with a community meal served by the Detroit Wobbly Kitchen and Food Not Bombs on the second floor of Central Church. A cultural program followed, coordinated by Broadside poet Aurora Harris and featuring the Recovery Band and In the Tradition.