Excerpt: ‘Once in a Great City’ marches through history

Washington Post associate editor David Maraniss spent his early childhood in Detroit and returned to research “Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story.” This latest effort by the best-selling author, being released today, offers a deep dive into the sociological underpinnings of the city between 1962-63.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and the “walk to freedom” down Woodward in June 1963 is examined in a new book.

In this chapter, “Eight Lanes Down Woodward,” Maraniss, 66, describes the backroom politicking and hostilities between factions in the local civil rights movement, leading up to the famous June 1963 “Walk to Freedom,” during which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led an array of Detroiters down Woodward Avenue to a rally at Cobo Hall where he gave his initial “I Have a Dream” speech.

Since the plane from Washington, due at one-thirty, was running late, Police Commissioner Edwards went to the airport with a phalanx of motorcycle cops to retrieve Martin Luther King instead of meeting him as planned at a downtown hotel before the march. Lt. George Harge came along, his presence signaling that Detroit would be a safe haven for the civil rights leader.

Harge had been promoted months earlier as the highest-ranking black officer in the Detroit Police Department, and his assignment now was to serve as King’s bodyguard throughout the day. Edwards led the small greeting party on the tarmac, with Harge at his side, when King deplaned with his traveling aide, Walter Fauntroy, an SCLC regional director and pastor of the Washington version of New Bethel Baptist. Michigan’s political leadership wanted to make it clear that this was not the South.

Gov. Romney had issued a proclamation declaring Sunday, June 23, 1963, “Freedom March Day.” Mayor Cavanagh had offered King the use of his limousine. And Edwards extended a greeting that sharply differentiated his force from the ugliness King had endured in Birmingham. “You’ll see no dogs and fire hoses here,” he said.

Maraniss has written biographies of President Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Vince Lombardi.

With a police escort clearing the way, the official party moved swiftly into the city and down to the Sheraton Cadillac at the corner of Michigan and Washington, skirting crowds already massing along Woodward. King washed up, changed clothes, and relaxed in his suite ... . Dressed “somberly in black,” he talked about his Oval Office meeting with President Kennedy the previous day at which they discussed the administration’s civil rights bill. Alluding to the Walk to Freedom that was about to take place on the streets of Detroit, King also stressed how vital mass protests were in pushing the cause, an idea not exactly endorsed by JFK.

“The president solicited our support of his legislation. He wants Negroes to mobilize to help pass the bill,” King said. “The president told me some congressmen feel this would be more harmful than helpful. I insisted it would not be harmful. He expressed concern over the fact that some demonstrations have led to violence. I told him the demonstrations have been amazingly nonviolent and it was spectators and others who were violent.”

By “others” King was referencing Bull Connor and other Southern officers of the law who had been upholding Jim Crow segregation through violent means. Proof that Detroit would be different went deeper than the protective assignment of Lt. Harge. Edwards had devoted significant time and attention to how his department would handle the march. By haunting coincidence, this very week marked the 20th anniversary of the violent race riot that wounded Detroit in 1943, when Edwards was on the city council, a progressive shaken to his core by that deadly reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. Two decades later, he wanted to minimize the possibility that his officers would provide a spark.

From ONCE IN A GREAT CITY by David Maraniss. Copyright © 2015 by David Maraniss. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

“I want this event to be peaceful and happy,” he told Paul Sheridan, the Central Station inspector placed in charge of the parade detail. “I want you to talk to every one of your details personally. Tell them we expect no trouble. Tell them to leave their clubs in the station house, and Paul, tell them all the time they are on Woodward Avenue to smile.” ...

With the marchers expected to be predominantly African-American, all available black officers were assigned to the event, but that still amounted to only 20, a minuscule percentage of the 500-plus detail that included two deputy inspectors, eight lieutenants, 28 sergeants, 23 detectives, and 452 patrolmen. Edwards wanted no trouble, but he also wanted the means to respond if trouble arose. His biggest fear was not that his force would misbehave but that antimarch hecklers might appear along the route. Hate mail was already starting to pile up in his office. Just in case, he had 100 commandos stationed in the garage at 1300 Beaubien, out of sight but connected by open line to Cobo Arena, where the rally was to end.

An event that six weeks earlier was no more than C. L. Franklin’s hazy idea and had been on the verge of collapse many times during the contentious planning stages, was now becoming a reality beyond even the extravagant reverend’s imagining. It seemed that everybody and everything were cooperating, even the weather. The early summer sun radiated in a high blue sky.

Franklin’s Detroit Council for Human Rights had evolved into a vibrant coalition joining forces for this day, from the Jewish Community Council to the Roman Catholic archdiocese, from the United Auto Workers to a group of local Teamsters, from the Urban League to — reluctantly, but in the end demonstrably — the NAACP, from New Bethel Baptist to Plymouth Congregational, from the Booker T. Washington Business Association to the Wolverine Bar Association, from the Conant Gardens Property Owners Association to the Cortland Block Club, from the Detroit Police Department Band to the Cass Tech Marching Band.

Churches, schools, social clubs, civic groups, small businesses, labor unions — all had their own marshals and armbands and signs and staging areas in a 21-block area off Woodward that stretched north along the avenue from Adelaide to the intersection with Warren several blocks below Wayne State and the Detroit Institute of Arts, about three miles away from the final destination at the riverside arena. At first the march had been scheduled to start at four, then it was moved up to three, but by as early as noon the staging areas were throbbing with energized masses eager to pick up their feet. Early crowds became so thick around Hudson’s in the Woodward shopping district that horses from the Police Mounted Bureau were diverted ... to the more spacious areas near Cobo to pull traffic duty. The optimistic talk beforehand was of bringing out 100,000 people; now it would be that and more....

The march had begun prematurely by the time King and his entourage left the hotel. An early platoon had already reached the corner of Woodward and Michigan at Campus Martius when the limo carrying King and Edwards approached. As the two men emerged from the backseat, thinking they had missed half the procession and should get to the front, a raucous shout — “There he is!” — sent a swarm toward King with the exuberance that would overwhelm him the rest of the day.

Some people started singing “God Bless America” as he took to the street. But just then Edwards heard on his radio that the other leaders of the march were waiting for them back at the Adelaide starting point. He motioned to King, who swiftly retreated with him into the limo, their faces shrouded by tinted windows as the vehicle maneuvered the back streets to get to where they were supposed to be. Fifteen minutes later, King and Edwards took their places in the front line, locking arms with C. L. Franklin, Charles Diggs, Benjamin McFall, Albert Cleage, James Del Rio, James Swainson, and Walter Reuther and taking the first steps forward, a mass of humanity behind them, eight lanes wide, nearly a mile deep, as they moved down Woodward Avenue on the Walk to Freedom.

Mayor Cavanagh marched with other dignitaries in the second row, directly behind King. Del Rio, who was in charge of arrangements, later claimed that he had assigned Cavanagh to the tenth row but the ambitious mayor had elbowed his way up. Possible but unlikely. Del Rio proved to be an unreliable narrator, also later asserting that the march was more than twice as large as the most generous estimates. What his claim about Cavanagh revealed, if nothing else, was the sentiment he shared with Rev. Cleage: This was to be a black-oriented event not overshadowed by white leaders. The enormity of the march made that concern seem inconsequential, just as it overwhelmed all of the infighting leading up to that moment. The surge behind Reuther and Franklin and King was so great that they all described being lifted off their feet and carried forward as if pushed by a great torrent. ...

There were signs everywhere: Time is Running Out; Let’s Move to Grosse Pointe; I’m Ashamed I Live in Dearborn; Don’t Tread on Me, White Man; Detroit Needs Strong Housing Laws; UAW Supports Pres. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Program; Evers Died for You; Stop Jim Crow; Fight for Freedom; Down with Segregation.

Some of those signs, quite noticeably, displayed five letters at the top: NAACP. This was the Machiavellian work of Arthur Johnson, executive director of the Detroit chapter, a group that had no role in planning the march and spent considerable time beforehand diminishing its importance, with some of its members forcefully trying to scuttle it and feuding with Rev. Franklin.

“As the excitement about the march grew in the community, we understood that it was bound to be a milestone for the city and the nation,” Johnson explained later. “We supported the march but had to recognize that we did not have leadership participation in it. Because the branch was at the forefront of all the issues of segregation, discrimination and police brutality, not being a part of this landmark civil rights event particularly concerned me, and I knew that I had to do something to advance the NAACP’s interest.”

That something, Johnson decided, would be thousands of placards with “NAACP” printed on them for people to carry on the march. He found a silkscreen company that could handle the order for $750 and called a closed-door meeting of his executive committee, which endorsed his plan and agreed to keep it secret. Early on the morning of the march he and an aide brought the placards to the staging areas and spread the word that anyone could carry them. “Within minutes,” Johnson noted, “all one thousand signs were gone.”

If Franklin was upset by the maneuver, he never mentioned it; there was too much going his way at the moment for him to bother with the unbrotherly cageyness. Even the outspoken Cleage let it go, for once.

What does a march signify in the larger scheme of things? It does not do the work of legislation, changing the laws and norms of society. It does not promise a transformative effect on an individual life, nor a lasting impact on a city, the way that education can, or money, smart leadership, community responsibility, or an effective social program. A march is ephemeral and symbolic. When stripped bare, it is nothing more than a parade of people. But that does not render it meaningless.

In retrospect, the Walk to Freedom on that fine June day can seem hollow, considering all that was to happen in and to Detroit in the following years, from the 1967 riot to the decline and fall toward bankruptcy a half century later. But a moment like that collapses time and represents its own reality, apart from the day to day, transcending the harsh judgment of literal and practical perspectives. No one who participated in the march forgot it, and as they moved eight lanes down Woodward toward Cobo they carried with them stories that were defined and deepened by the events of that day—and that its aftermath could not diminish.

From ONCE IN A GREAT CITY by David Maraniss. Copyright © 2015 by David Maraniss. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Coming Wednesday:

Excerpts from chapter on J. Walter Thompson and Ford’s T-5