Martin Luther King speaks to an audience in Gross Pointe

Martin Luther King Jr., Hecklers, and a Wealthy Suburb

By Brad Constant

The small, wealthy community of Grosse Pointe, Mich., lies on Detroit’s northern border. It is known for loafers, lakefront parks, tree-lined streets and a median household income that is nearly double the national average.

In the 1960s this quiet community was nearly all white and highly segregated. It was not a place one would expect Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to be invited to come speak. But on March 14, 1968, by invitation of the Human Relation Council in Grosse Pointe, King spoke to a raucous crowd at Grosse Pointe High, now Grosse Pointe South High School.

The evening began with a delayed flight. The motorcade then whisked King through Detroit on its way towards its destination.

The crowds grew and traffic came to a standstill as the group neared the high school. Tensions were high as the crowd teetered on the edge between jubilant excitement and furious upheaval as the motorcade stopped to let one man enter the front seat of an unmarked car before arriving at the school.

“Dr. King, the man sitting on your lap is our chief of police,” a woman in the backseat said as the car arrived at the high school.

This may have been the first time a police chief rode on King’s. But it was the only comic relief of the evening according to Jude Huetteman, the woman riding in the back seat and program chairwoman of the Human Relations Council in Grosse Pointe.

In fact, the entire build up to the speech was cause for alarm. Huetteman and other council members had been receiving death threats. Right-wing activists were planning a demonstration, even forging event tickets to get inside the building. The Federal Bureau of Investigations had undercover agents working during the build up and at the event. A bomb squad was called in to clear the school.

But this did not deter King from speaking before the raucous crowd as he delivered a speech titled “The Other America.” 

Kings speech was interrupted by hecklers, some even calling him a traitor. Those close to King mentioned that his normally steady hands were shaking and his forehead was glistening with sweat. During the post-speech press conference King said that he had never faced such hostility at an indoor event.

In his speech King says,

“There are two Americas. One America is beautiful for situation. In this America, millions of people have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them…This other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, thousands and thousands of people, men in particular walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. In this other America, millions of people are forced to live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions where they do not have the privilege of having wall-to-wall carpeting, but all too often, they end up with wall-to-wall rats and roaches.”

This rings true today in a world in which both Black and Native America ethnicities have the highest unemployment rates at 6.1%, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The National Center for Education Statistics says that the graduation rate for Black students is only 79.6%.

These are clear indicators King’s speech is just as relevant today as it was in 1968. It brings to light the vast disparity evident in America. The speech highlights the two America’s that surround us everyday.

King goes on to say,

“We’ve got to see that this still exists in American society. And until it is removed, there will be people walking the streets of life and living in their humble dwellings feeling that they are nobody, feeling that they have no dignity and feeling that they are not respected. The first thing that must be on the agenda of our nation is to get rid of racism.”

The night ended without issue for King. He rode back to downtown Detroit with Huetteman while discussing the upcoming Poor People’s March and how hate can consume a person.

King was assassinated three weeks later in Memphis, Tenn. He left behind a legacy of nonviolent civil rights activism that continues to fuel change in our great nation. As a nation, we celebrate his achievements each year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Visit the Grosse Pointe Historical Society to read or listen to King’s speech, “The Other America.”

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