DETROIT (WXYZ) - From California to Michigan, two proud people commemorate the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s “Great Walk to Freedom.”
Remember the names James Del Rio and Joyce Wells. To the best of my knowledge, they’ve never met each other before even though they share a special historical bond.
In June 1963, Del Rio was a fearless 39 year-old African American Detroit attorney. Today, he's retired in San Diego as he approaches his 90th birthday. Time hasn’t clouded his memory about what many believe is the largest civil right demonstration in American history. Del Rio was the “planning chairman director” of the 1963 march down Woodward Avenue highlighted by the participation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Del Rio was also one of the young turks of the Detroit Council for Human Rights (DCHR), the organization that spearheaded the massive Detroit demonstration. That group included Rev. C.L. Franklin, soul singer Aretha’s father and the popular pastor of Detroit’s New Bethel Baptist Church; as well as Rev. Albert Cleage, the founder of the Shrine of the Black Madonna who would later change his name to Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman. Del Rio spoke highly of both. He called, “They were fiery speakers!"
Back then, DCHR was considered to be a group of young rebels, or at the very least, “non-establishment” leaders. The DCHR had to drag Detroit’s NAACP and Urban League into the march kicking and screaming!
“Everybody tried to stop us,” Del Rio remembered in a phone conversation with me. “Dr. King had never been involved in a march like this. “ To put it mildly, Detroit’s established African American leadership was nervous that the march would be a failure, They were concerned that Dr. King would be embarrassed, and the progress their organizations had made would be eroded in one big public relations catastrophe.
William Patrick was the first African American elected to the Detroit City Council in the 20th century. The graduate of Howard University and the University of Michigan Law School was well respected. He had an illustrious career in public service and corporate America. But on June 23, 1963, Del Rio says Patrick was angry! “He turned off the audio when Dr. King began delivering his remarks in Detroit. He turned the audio back on when someone else spoke.”
Now remember, Del Rio, a Detroit College of Law graduate who put himself through school, was no angel himself. As journalist Tony Brown recently told a packed roomed at the UAW Ford Building, “Jim Del Rio was smart and tough!” He was also very controversial. The former Detroit Recorder’s Court judge was eventually tossed off the bench, in part, because he pulled a gun out from under his robe in the courtroom. Today, he says he has “no regrets” about his colorful legal and civil right career. “That march made a big difference,” he said with pride! Without question, it was a major catalyst for improving race relations, civil rights, and jobs for African Americans.
So what does Del Rio think about today’s 50 th anniversary march? “I think it’s wonderful! It’s a reminder that we (Detroiters) were awake and ready to go before a lot of others.” And he is right! History will always show that Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands in Detroit before he gave it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Now, fast forward to 2013. I attended a luncheon yesterday where ’63 march coordinator Tony Brown spoke. In the lobby of the UAW building Joyce Wells introduced herself. She’s a retired Detroit Public Schools administrator who attended the Great Walk to Freedom with her father and brother a half century ago. Wells was 11 years old at the time. Her brother, Dwayne, was two. But Joyce vividly remembers her father, Lloyd Wesley, Sr., a civil rights enthusiast and entrepreneur, telling her to hang onto the printed program handed out on that historic day. He had moved to Detroit from Independence, Kansas to accept a job at the Shatterproof Glass Company. Lloyd Wesley told his children, “That program will be worth something one day!” And so, Joyce Wells beamed with pride as she showed me her 50 year old program that was admired by many at the luncheon. One of the attendees who took great interest in it was Tony Brown. Joyce Wells said he was surprised to see the program "since he never had one." Graciously, Wells gave Brown a copy of her original program. In return, Brown autographed the program Wells has been keeping for half-a-century! When I kiddingly asked Joyce Wells if she would like to part with her now even more valuable Detroit civil rights printed heirloom, she smiled and respectfully said, “ NO WAY!” I can't blame her.
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