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Hart Plaza Gets a New Statue to Commemorate the Fight for Civil Rights

Lifesize Martin Luther King Jr. Statue Recognizes the Work Done and the Work Still Left to Do


If you’ve been near Hart Plaza recently you may have noticed something new: A life-size statue of Martin Luther King has been installed.

Why in Detroit and why Hart Plaza?

Many people may be familiar with MLK’s deep connections to Detroit, but others may not. According to Rebecca Salminen-Witt of the Detroit Historical Society and Detroit Historian, Jamon Jordan, more often than not people are surprised to hear that 60 years ago 125,000 people marched down Woodward Avenue to peacefully advocate for racial justice and equity as part of a Walk to Freedom alongside Martin Luther King Jr. The march took them to what was then called Cobo Hall where King delivered a version of his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech two months before delivering it in Washington, D.C. where it became famous.

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The date, June 23, 1963, was chosen for the march because it was the anniversary of the Detroit Race Riot of 1943. The march was organized by the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the father of singer Aretha Franklin, the Rev Albert B. Cleage, and organizers for the Detroit Council for Human Rights (DCHR). It was the largest civil rights demonstration of its time.

Many think that King’s work at that time was mostly in the South, but King had been visiting other key cities throughout the U.S. trying to rid the country of segregation. From a historical perspective, says Salminen-Witt, “This was the period of Jim Crow and lunch counter protests and Rosa Parks. It was important that he came to Detroit. He wanted people to know that racism and segregation existed in not just the South, but the North too.”

Jordan echoes this saying,

A lot of people think the Civil Rights Movement was something that happened in the South only, and that’s not true. Detroit was a big part of that movement.

Where to place a statue of Dr. King, who was so connected to Detroit, was very important. It needed to be in a location that spoke to people across the city and southeast Michigan.

“Hart Plaza,” says Rochelle Riley, the city’s Director of Arts and Culture, “Is our Time Square, so it is the best place to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to recognize others whose deeds were lost to history due to the color of their skin.”

Jordan weighs in, saying, “The march ended in the vicinity of where the statue is installed. I think having the statue in Hart Plaza will help place people in contact with that history and hopefully help acquaint people with that period and the history of African Americans in Detroit.”

The ‘behind the scenes’ story regarding how the statue came to be identified and placed in Detroit is quite interesting, and it begins in New York at a Broadway show.

In 2022, more Detroit talent was working on Broadway than at any other time in history. So, Riley worked with “Skeleton Crew” Playwright Dominique Morisseau – a native Detroiter – to organize a celebration of Detroit on Broadway.  Mayor Mike Duggan and hundreds of Detroiters and Motown lovers attended the play.

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At a dinner at Sardi’s before the play, theater legend Woodie King told the mayor that an artist – Stan Watts – had created a bust of him. Immediately the mayor said the bust needed to come to Detroit and have a home in The Wright, the second-largest African American museum in America.

This set the wheels in motion, and in July 2022, timed with the Tony Awards (and to celebrate Detroit Tony winners and nominees), The Wright in conjunction with the Black Theatre Network hosted a homecoming reception to celebrate one of the best Broadway seasons for Detroit and black thespians eve. At that event, Mayor Duggan unveiled the bust that now lives in the Wright.

At this event, the bust’s sculptor Watts told Riley that he also had finished a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Riley mentioned the 1963 Detroit Walk to Freedom, which Watts was not familiar with, and the ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in Detroit. Thus began the process to bring the Watts piece to Detroit. The city, Watts, and the donor collaborated to ensure the statue could be installed and dedicated on June 23, the 60th anniversary of the speech in Detroit.

So, on June 23 as part of the Detroit branch NAACP commemorative June Jubilee: A Celebration of Freedom, the statue was unveiled by Riley, the Mayor, and others, with the Mayor saying,

In this city, history has been lacking. If you drive around the city, you see monuments to mayors, generals and businessmen, poets, and priests from more than a century ago – but you see very few images that celebrate the accomplishments of Black leaders. Today we take a step forward to change that.

If you are interested in learning more about that period of time surrounding the Walk of Freedom and King’s speech in Detroit and the 1967 riots, visit the Detroit Historical Museum and their Detroit 67: Perspectives Exhibit, which covers events 50 years prior to 1967 through the present.


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