Martin Luther King Jr. had special ties to Windsor

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Martin Luther King Jr. needed help, so he came to Windsor.

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Enamored of Windsor’s relative racial harmony, the peaceful approach of its civil rights activists, and the city’s famous Emancipation Day festival, the freedom fighter has made several trips to Windsor to network and make friends. speech.

In Windsor, King saw his dream of a better world take shape.

“Windsor wasn’t the perfect place in the world, but he got to see his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech in action,” said Windsor-born filmmaker Preston Chase. “He could see his speech in action walking around Ouellette or Jackson Park.”

A new report from the University of Windsor examines the special ties King – who will be celebrated on Monday with the annual American party bearing his name – had with Windsor.

The report, titled Honoring Dr. King, in Windsor, in Education and in Historic Narrative, was to be published Friday in the university’s Daily News.

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“What is important to recognize is the history of black people in Canada and in particular the unique position of Windsor-Essex,” said author Lila Happy, a fourth-year political science student majoring in law. and in politics.

“Canada was called the North Star in terms of the descendants of the Underground Railroad, and even Dr. King spoke of it when he referred to Canada as the word for heaven as far as black people are concerned.”

His report focuses on King’s visit to Windsor in 1956 for Emancipation Day celebrations.

“It’s important that Dr. King came to Windsor because of this city’s black heritage,” Happy said. “Another aspect is that Windsor is a very strategic location with its proximity to Detroit, which meant that many Americans were able to join in the celebrations as well, which really made it a transnational event.”

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Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the guest speaker Aug. 7, 1956, at Emancipation Day celebrations in Jackson Park.  Left to right as they discuss the program, Russel Small of Windsor, chair of the Emancipation Committee;  King;  Reverend Theodore S. Boone of Detroit;  and Walter Perry, founder and organizer of Emancipation Celebration.
Civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the guest speaker Aug. 7, 1956, at Emancipation Day celebrations in Jackson Park. Left to right as they discuss the program, Russel Small of Windsor, chair of the Emancipation Committee; King; Reverend Theodore S. Boone of Detroit; and Walter Perry, founder and organizer of Emancipation Celebration. Photo by photo archive /Windsor Star

“It really served as a meeting for all nations and all people to come together and really talk about peacebuilding and these social justice issues that were coming up.”

Elise Harding-Davis, a local historian and African-Canadian heritage consultant, said King made his first visit to Windsor three years earlier.

“When Martin Luther King came here in 1953, he wasn’t the Martin Luther King we all revere,” she said. “He was a young black preacher who was looking for help. The Emancipation Celebration wasn’t just one big fun ride. It was a freedom fighter networking process. From slavery to the emancipation celebrations of the mid-1900s, there was a group of men and women very involved in politics, civil rights issues. We even sent money to support certain activities in Birmingham.

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Chase, whose great-uncle Walter Perry founded the Emancipation Day festival in 1932, said the event was initially King’s main draw.

It was Martin Luther King Jr. and he was in Windsor talking about civil rights.

It was a celebration of the abolition of slavery by the British Empire on August 1, 1834. It was also one of the largest festivals on the continent, temporarily doubling the population of Windsor, attracting prominent politicians and activists, like Eleanor Roosevelt and artists like the Supremes and Stevie Wonder.

The festival and its creator are the focus of Chase’s documentary film, Mister Emancipation: The Walter Perry Story.

“In Windsor, it transcended racing,” Chase said. “It was one of the most important things. It was a welcome break from Jim Crow for black America. Their civil rights leaders could speak openly to diverse crowds without interruption. There was no horses. There were no pipes. There was none of that in Windsor at that time.

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Following in the footsteps of mentors such as Benjamin Mays, Archibald Carey and the Reverend William Borders, all of whom visited Windsor on several occasions, King served as the festival’s keynote speaker in 1956.

Harding-Davis, then about eight years old, was in the crowd.

“He was kind enough to stop and talk to me,” she said. “I was amazed. I didn’t really know who he was. But I knew who he was. He was Martin Luther King Jr. and he was in Windsor talking about civil rights.

She said Canada showed King, who championed nonviolence and civil disobedience to fight racial discrimination, a movement toward change and equality that was largely free from the brutality that plagues his country.

“He also came to chat with civil rights workers here in the Windsor area because of their non-violent activities with sit-ins and things like that,” Harding-Davis said. “There was a whole group of socially wise people here who were involved in the civil rights movement.”

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Chase said King later returned to address Windsor’s religious and business leaders at the Cleary Center five months before his famous “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington.

Local photographer Spike Bell was there to capture the historic moment of March 14, 1963.

“There wasn’t a peek in that room,” Bell said. “His voice was just amazing. You could have dropped a pin on a rug and heard it. Everyone was just stunned, just listening to this man. He had a fantastic voice, a fantastic speech. It’s something I will never forget.

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King had hoped to visit Windsor at least once more in 1967, but it was not meant to be. The festival conflicted with a planned trip to Israel. He sent Perry a telegram apologizing for not being able to attend that year’s Emancipation Festival, which was ultimately canceled due to the Detroit riots.

“Please let all the good people in Canada know how much this kind of tangible support means to us,” King, who was murdered on April 14, 1968, said in the telegram. “I will follow with keen interest how your progress develops to support the work here in Birmingham.”

twilhelm@postmedia.com

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