A Lifelong Dream

Source: College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Graphic courtesy of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

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.

Detroit, 1963

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.

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