By Abayomi Azikiwe
A broad range of organizations united in Detroit on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to extend the struggle into the third decade of the 21st century. On Monday January 20, the 17th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Rally & March was held in the city of Detroit at the Historic St. Matthew’s-St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on Woodward Avenue in the North End section of town.This event has become a hallmark for social justice activists and organizations within southeastern Michigan.
The church was filled to capacity with many youth attending alongside community residents, artists, representatives of trade unions and religious groups. Despite the cold weather and snow, people came out in response to the call issued by the MLK Committee aimed at generating continued engagement around questions of racism, national oppression, economic exploitation, climate change, imperialist militarism, mass incarceration, disability rights, universal suffrage and the organization of low-wage workers.
A tribute to the late former United States Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (1929-2019) was delivered by City Councilwoman Emeritus Rev. Dr. JoAnn Watson. As a longtime Civil Rights and community activist, Watson served on the staff of Congressman Conyers for many years. Watson pointed out the role of Conyers as an elected official representing the people of Detroit and other suburban communities. He would hire the late Mrs. Rosa Parks, the woman who would initiate the mass Civil Rights Movement after being arrested for refusing to concede her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama on December 1, 1955. Parks moved to Detroit in the late 1950s after facing tremendous social and economic pressure in the state of Alabama.
Conyers, who served in Congress for over 50 years, was a frequent guest at the Detroit MLK Day event prominently seated annually in the front row due to his pivotal role in engineering the national holiday in honor of the martyred Civil Rights and antiwar leader. Just several days after the assassination of Dr. King in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, the Detroit legislator would submit a bill to designate January 15 as a national holiday.
Eventually the holiday commemoration went into effect in January of 1986. King’s birthday is celebrated on the third Monday of January when government offices, banks and many educational institutions and businesses are closed in his honor. The Detroit MLK Day commemoration is designed to highlight the peace and social justice legacy of Dr. King. There was an opening rally which featured a myriad of organizations actively working on issues relevant to the local, national, international communities.
After the rally there was a march through the North End in solidarity with the people against property tax foreclosures, water shut-offs, gentrification, political repression and in support of jobs, community stabilization and democratic rights. The North End as an historic community in the city has been a central target of the existing corporate-imposed administration in Detroit for the forced and systematic removal of residents through the seizure of homes for over assessed delinquent property taxes, the termination of water services to households and the repopulation of the area utilizing high-rents and increased property values.
Since the founding of the Annual MLK Day March & Rally in 2004, the idea has been to reconnect the people with the actual work of King over a period of his active political life from 1955 to the time of his martyrdom in 1968. During the last two years of his life, the co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) attempted to refocus his work to address the plight of African Americans living in large urban areas of both the South and the North.
This reorientation was carried out through the work of SCLC during the summer of 1966 in the Chicago Freedom Movement and their work in Cleveland utilizing boycotts and demonstrations to demand housing reforms and jobs for the unemployed and poor the following year. The work of Dr. King in Chicago and Cleveland during 1966 and 1967 respectively, exposed the continued existence of institutional racism in the northern cities and the need for fundamental social reforms which would guarantee housing, healthcare, jobs and an annual income for all families living in the U.S.
By early 1967, Dr. King had come out solidly against the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. He often described the war as unjust and an enemy of the poor. Dr. King viewed the genocidal war in Vietnam as a reflection of a much deeper malady within the American system where the history of African enslavement and ongoing national oppression was a driving force for imperialism throughout the globe.
Participant Speakers and Presenters Highlight Rich Political and Cultural Legacy in Detroit and Beyond
The keynote speaker for the 2020 MLK Day Rally was Rev. Dr. Luis Barrios, the President of the Board of Directors at the Inter-religious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) based in New York City. Barrios, an intellectual and clergyman, is also a faculty member at the City College of New York (CCNY) where he teaches young people about the social impact of the Criminal Justice system in the U.S.
Barrios spoke on the attempts by MLK to build an alliance of nationally oppressed groups in the U.S. in order to eliminate racism and poverty. A large aspect of Barrios’ work is centered around support for the Cuban Revolution through travel challenges and campaigns aimed at eliminating the decades-long blockade against the Caribbean nation which has been building socialism since the Revolution in 1959.
Other performers and speakers included: Bobbi Thompson of the Springwells Choral based in Detroit; Cosecha Detroit, the local affiliate of the national organization concerned about improving the social plight of migrant workers who in Michigan are denied the right to driver’s licenses; the African Bureau of Immigration and Social Affairs, which works directly with undocumented workers from the continent who are often overlooked in the national discussions surrounding immigration; Fight for $15, a labor organization campaigning for a significant hike in the minimum wage; Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization, organizing around climate change; and Geopolitics Alert, a news website educating the public around the role of U.S. imperialism in many areas of the globe.
The MLK Committee each year presents a “People’s Spirit of Detroit” award to some outstanding activists and organizations. This year the award was granted to members of the Denby High School Football team which came under racist attacks during the semi-final game held against Almont in the Oakland County City of Walled Lake. The attacks began after several members of the team “took a knee” in solidarity with the people combatting racism and injustice in the U.S.
After the rally and march, a community meal was provided free of charge by the Wobbly Kitchen. Later a cultural program coordinated by Aurora Harris was presented featuring poets and musicians such as Joe Kidd & Sheila Burke, One Single Rose, Maryam Lowen, Jim Perkinson, Wardell Montgomery, Shushanna Shakur, and others.
Event Sponsored and Endorsed by Many Organizations
MLK Day was made possible by the generous monetary and in-kind contributions of a host of community organizations, individuals and institutions. Many other groups endorsed the activity and helped to publicize the event.
Some of the co-sponsors were: the ACLU of Michigan, Avalon Bakery, the Buck Dinner Fund, the Detroit Active and Retired Employees Association (DAREA), Detroit Disability Power, the Detroit Greens, Detroit Wobbly Kitchen, Yvonne and Nelson Jones, Jewish Voice for Peace, Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, Michigan Emergency Committee Against War & Injustice (MECAWI), the Moratorium NOW! Coalition, Michigan League of Conservation Voters, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), Mosaic DesignGroup, NextGen Michigan, People’s Water Board, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, Linda Szyszko, Truth Telling Project from Ferguson & Beyond, UAW Local 160, Unite Here Local 24, Viola Liuzzo Park Association, We the People of Detroit, A. Phillip Randolph Institute, National Lawyers Guild, and others.
The rally and march was widely covered in the local media through the presence of television stations and the City of Detroit communications division.