Elizabeth James was working as a librarian in Detroit in 1986, helping children create birthday cards in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. to send to his widow, Coretta Scott King. In her search for materials about his life, she came across a Motown album. The Great March to Freedom, Detroit, June 23, 1963 it announced in black block letters atop a sky blue background. In the center was a photo looking over the shoulder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as he spoke to a large crowd.
The sight of it shook something, a memory, she held deep inside her. She walked to the room in the library that housed a record player.
She moved the needle onto the album. “I was there,” she told her colleagues as they listened to the great orator speak.
And she started to cry.
Elizabeth James, now a program manager with the LSA Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS), was nearly three years old when her grandmother packed a lunch for the two of them and set out to join a walk that was part of the Civil Rights Movement. It was organized by the Rev. Clarence L. Franklin—the father of Aretha Franklin—as well as the Rev. Albert Cleage, Jimmy and Grace Lee Boggs, and others from the Detroit Council for Human Rights. The date—June 23, 1963—was chosen because it was the 20th anniversary of the 1943 Detroit race riot.
The goal of what was officially called the Detroit Walk to Freedom was, according to blackpast.org, to speak out against segregation and the brutality that civil rights activists regularly experienced in the South; to address concerns in the urban North, including employment and housing discrimination and de facto school segregation; and to raise funds and awareness for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Elizabeth James’s grandmother, Julia Ann Smith James, was well aware of the struggles in the North and the South. In Louisiana, she was forced to attend a boarding school designed to assimilate Native American children into European American culture. Later, Julia was working as a cook for a wealthy family when her employer attempted to assault her. “Being the strong woman she was,” Elizabeth recalls, “she fought back and later that evening, her family had to send her by train for her protection from retribution.” She went to be with her older sister, who lived in Detroit.
Julia’s family grew, and, in 1960, Elizabeth was born. “Grandmama,” as Elizabeth calls her, looked after her during the days while her mother worked as a librarian.
On that day in June 1963, Julia told her granddaughter, “‘Beth, I’m going to need you to stay very close to me. Do not let go of my hand. We’re going to be marching with a lot of people today. I don’t know how many people will be there, but I want you never to let go of my hand,’” Elizabeth recalls.
She didn’t let go of her grandmama’s hand, and “a lot of people” turned out to be 125,000. It was the largest single civil rights demonstration in the country’s history at the time. “It was this incredible energy,” she recalls. “I kept saying, ‘wow, all the people are around us!’ Some were singing, some were chanting, some were holding signs.”
Elizabeth and her grandmother walked for what seemed to her to be a long time, then ate their lunch on the steps of the Our Lady of the Rosary church before returning home. It would have been too much to expect a toddler to walk the rest of the way and to listen to the talk by Dr. King. As a young woman working at a library in Detroit all those years later, memories of the day came flooding back to her. And at that stage in her life, she could appreciate what Dr. King told the crowd on that day in Detroit.
The Detroit Free Press highlighted the Walk for Freedom in 1963 with a front-page story and photo.
“I Have a Dream” in Detroit
It’s not that Elizabeth James had forgotten that she attended the Walk for Freedom, exactly. She knew that she had attended a huge event with her grandmother, that her grandmother loved reading stories about Dr. King in magazines that Elizabeth’s mother brought home from the library, and that the Civil Rights Movement influenced her throughout her life. But until she heard the sound from the record player that day in 1986, she hadn’t put the pieces together that she was at that march in particular.
She listened as his voice, methodical and hypnotic, came through the speakers on the library’s record player. “Segregation is a cancer in the body politic which must be removed before our democratic health can be realized. Segregation is wrong because it is nothing but a new form of slavery covered up with such niceties of complexity. Segregation is wrong because it is a system of adultery perpetuated by an illicit intercourse between injustice and immorality. …
“And so this afternoon, I have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream….I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job. …I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day.”
Yes, that speech was given in Detroit—two months before Dr. King made a similar speech at the more-famous March on Washington. Indeed, Dr. King hadn’t intended to give the “dream” speech in Washington. He had notes for another oration. But singer Mahalia Jackson, who had been at the Detroit march, stood near Dr. King at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” she said.
He set aside his other notes, and he told them about the dream.
Elizabeth James (center) with her grandmother, Julia (left) and great aunt Mattie (right).
Elizabeth James’s Dream
Elizabeth James studied at the University of Michigan, earning a B.A. in the history of art and communications in 1982 and an M.A. in journalism in 1984, followed by a Master of Library and Information Science from Wayne State.
In her position with DAAS, she has many roles, including as the department’s outreach coordinator. She was a 2014 Harold R. Johnson Diversity Service Award recipient at U-M, adviser of the year, and a recipient of the Cornerstone Award from the Black Celebratory, and a Ginsburg Award for Service and Social Action among other honors for her service and dedication to DAAS and the student community. In addition, she is the Black Student Union Adviser, a committee member for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, and resident storyteller at Camp Michitanki, a camp for transplant recipients.
It is a life of service and significance that grew roots when she was just a toddler, looking to her grandmother as an example and inspired by an early moment of activism. “She believed in amplifying the voices of those who had been silenced because she had been silenced,” Elizabeth says. “If she knew I was continuing this work, in my heart, I believe it would make her proud.”
Elizabeth is now the age that her grandmother would have been when they attended the march in Detroit. “Whenever I feel a little less grounded, I look back to the summer of ’63. You could feel something was coming, but there was a great deal of hope in that summer,” she says.
“I’ve never given up hope that we can have a better society.”