Aretha Franklin Reflects on her Dad's, Rev. C.L. Franklin, Role in the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom

34567ug67The June 1963 Detroit Walk To Freedom almost didn't happen.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. waves to onlookers as he leads the 125,000 strong 'Walk to Freedom' on Woodward Avenue in Detroit in 1963. From left to right in the front row are: Walter Reuther, Benjamin McFall, Commander George Harge (cop with cap), Dr. King, and the Rev. C.L. Franklin. by Tony Spina / Detroit Free Press Tony Spina / Detroit Free Press

That spring, as the Rev. C.L. Franklin worked to convince the city's traditional community and religious leaders to embrace his idea of a massive demonstration to bring national attention to racial discrimination, most of the preachers -- and the NAACP -- didn't want him to plan or lead it.

"Many pastors whom he invited to our home to discuss it were not on board," his daughter, the singer Aretha Franklin, said in an interview this week. "They didn't think it was such a good idea."

The singer was living in New York that summer, in the third year of her contract with Columbia Records.

"I had never been away from home," she said. "He was monitoring all, and he did come into New York to oversee how things were going."

But despite C.L. Franklin's attention being torn in two directions, he pulled together what would become the largest civil-rights demonstration in U.S. history until the March on Washington two months later.

Detroit's traditional leadership fought him almost to the end.

"They abhorred his public style and denigrated his political status," Nick Salvatore wrote in C.L. Franklin's biography, "Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church and the Transformation of America." "Yet, in this moment of crisis, (Dr. Martin Luther) King had reached out not for Arthur Johnson, his Morehouse College classmate, nor other acquaintances among the black social elite, but for the Mississippi-born migrant."

King's support ended the feud; planning kicked into high gear. And C.L. Franklin knew where to turn to make the march a success.

"It started with Mahalia Jackson, who was a great friend of my dad's," Aretha Franklin said. "Harry Belafonte called Mahalia, and she called my dad.

"He had his vision, and yes it was under his control," the singer said. "It was his vision of what he wanted to be, and of course ... it set the stage for the march (on Washington)."

It has become fairly common knowledge that King gave his "I Have A Dream Speech" in Detroit before offering it to the nation two months later. But in the weeks leading up the Detroit march, no one knew that, and some worried that the racial tensions that would erupt into massive riots four years later had already begun to boil in the summer of 1963.

"The march was viewed with a lot of fear and apprehension," said the Rev. Nicholas Hood Sr., then pastor of Plymouth United Church of Christ.

Source: Detroit Free Press | Rochelle Riley 
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