In June 1963, King stood before 25,000 people at Cobo Hallin Detroit, his voice ringing out in the convention center, saying the words that would become written into American history for all time.“I have a dream this afternoon.”
His appearance at Cobo Hall came at the end of a day that began with The Walk to Freedom, a civil rights march in Detroit that would draw some 125,000 people and be the largest of its kind until it was eclipsed, two months later, by the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
What’s observable right away is that his speech in Detroit is similar to the one he gave in Washington D.C., but not identical. It is a more local address, tailored to speak to the black population there. He speaks of the budding awareness of a rightful place among all men:
“Negro masses, [Applause] Negro masses all over began to re-evaluate themselves, and the Negro came to feel that he was somebody. His religion revealed to him, [Laughter. Applause] his religion revealed to him that God loves all of his children, and that all men are made in His image, and that figuratively speaking, every man from a bass-black to a treble-white is significant on God’s keyboard. [Applause]
He borrowed some lines from an eighteenth-century English poet, William Cowper verses that he would later rephrase in Washington D.C. to ask that he not be judged by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character:
Fleecy locks and black complexion/Cannot forfeit nature’s claim.
Skin may differ, but affection/Dwells in black and white the same.
Were I so tall as to reach the pole/Or to grasp at the ocean at a span,
I must be measured by my soul/The mind is the standard of the man.
King earned a great round of applause for the Cowper quote.
Some passages that he spoke in Detroit never made it into the Washington speech. The reasons could be several including the need to make his message more universal for the crowds in the nation’s capital, or a need to downplay the enumeration of atrocities that were included in his June address:
And so I go back to the South not in despair. I go back to the South not with a feeling that we are caught in a dark dungeon that will never lead to a way out. I go back believing that the new day is coming. And so this afternoon, I have a dream. (Go ahead) It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream this afternoon that one day, [Applause] that one day men will no longer burn down houses and the church of God simply because people want to be free.
I have a dream this afternoon (I have a dream) that there will be a day that we will no longer face the atrocities that Emmett Till had to face or Medgar Evers had to face, that all men can live with dignity.
I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job. [Applause] (That’s right)
I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day.
And with this faith I will go out and carve a tunnel of hope through the mountain of despair. With this faith, I will go out with you and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.
With this faith, we will be able to achieve this new day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing with the Negroes in the spiritual of old:
And we know what came next both in Detroit and Washington, D.C.; King’s trip to the motor city was a dress rehearsal.