The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Remembering Detroit Freedom March

Jun 10, 2013

Saturday, June 22nd, Detroit will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Detroit Freedom Walk led by Dr. Martin Luther King in 1963.

It is estimated that more than 125,000 people marched in Detroit in 1963. It was, up to that point, the largest civil rights demonstration in U.S. history.

The year 1963 had already witnessed the massive mobilization of the black population of Birmingham, Alabama against the racism being imposed on them. These demonstrations continued for three months and culminated in Bull Connor being forced out as head of city government. King’s speech in Detroit in 1963 referenced protest movements in more than 60 other communities following the Birmingham events.

It was this militancy on the part of the black population that, in the 10 years to follow, pushed back racism and opened the possibility for real social change. By the time of King’s speech in Detroit, important sections of the black population had moved beyond King’s philosophy of non-violent protest and of working within the system. They embraced a much more radical demand for “justice now” and, as Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary.” King and government authorities feared that the freedom marches would result in a militant fight of the population that could not be contained within a “peaceful” framework. But for King, it was not possible to decline to participate and still retain leadership of the movement.

The urban rebellions, or “riots” as they have been called, began in 1963 in Birmingham and were followed by massive social explosions – from Harlem, Watts, Cleveland, Chicago – to Detroit and Newark in 1967 and almost every city in 1968, when King was assassinated. It was, finally, these urban rebellions that forced the bourgeoisie and their representatives to begin hiring black workers into the plants and workplaces previously segregated; these jobs enabled black people to afford housing in previously segregated areas.

In Detroit, for the first time, black workers were hired into decent paying jobs in auto and city and state government. The city was flooded with money for schools, for recreation centers and libraries and for social programs of all kinds.

But at the same time, while forced to address the immediate needs of the black population, those who ran the city were clearly already formulating a strategy to take down the city; to divest it of wealth and property, and to leave it impoverished. While the famous “white flight” was undoubtedly a problem, the withdrawal of finance capital and business that followed the rebellion was the work of those at the top of the economic heap. It was this that forced the real flight out of the city, and not just of white workers, but of the wider population. In the words of the head of the famous downtown Hudson’s department store, Joseph L. Hudson, on the fifth anniversary of the 1967 Detroit rebellion: “The black man has the feeling he is about to take power in the city. But he is going to be left with an empty bag.”

First, banking establishments withdrew to north of Eight Mile. Southfield, a “bedroom” community of Detroit, became the financial banking center while businesses and stores were closed in the city. Detroit was left with a vacant downtown in place of a vibrant inner city.

Today, the upper class is once again interested in Detroit – to make it their playground and to renovate what they want renovated. They blame the population and crooked politicians for the indebtedness of the city and propose to make us pay by giving up our schools and land, jobs and pensions.

Will they succeed in forcing us to pay for the next 30 or 50 years for the debt they and the banks imposed on us? Or will they see an upsurge of the population that takes us forward and beyond the groundwork laid by the Freedom March of 1963 and the rebellions that followed?