Detroit and the Poor People’s Campaign

By Herb Boyd

There is no way to say how many Detroiters attended the Poor People’s Campaign, but it was a sizable contingent that left with the Rev. Cecil Franklin in 1968 for the nation’s capital.   Franklin, then 28, and the son of the famous preacher and the brother of the famous singer, was the chair of the Campaign’s branch in Detroit, and welcomed the arrival of 600 marchers to the city for a rally on May 13 at Cobo Hall.

“That evening, the police and demonstrators argued over an illegally parked sound car,” wrote Nick Salvatore in his book Singing in a Strange Land—C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America (2006). “Something was thrown, and the police responded with force; mounted officers wielded batons and rained down blows on unarmed people. The Franklins, father and son, quickly shifted the remaining crowd toward New Bethel, where Claud Young (a doctor and Coleman Young’s cousin) and church nurses provided medical services….”

Local activist Sheila Murphy Cockrel was at Cobo Hall to greet the marchers and witnessed the assault on the crowd. She was so incensed by the brutality administered by the police that she organized an Ad-Hoc Action group to protest police brutality. This resolve would characterize her ongoing fight against social and political injustice.

When the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, now the Campaign’s chief coordinator, arrived and called a press conference with Rev. Franklin, he demanded a full investigation of the attack, which he contended was part of a pattern of violence to discourage people from joining the Campaign.  With no resolution forthcoming from the city, the marchers resumed their trip to Washington, D.C. accompanied by a throng of Detroiters, led by Cecil Franklin.

The Rev. C.L. Franklin did not accompany his son to D.C. but did arrive in June for Solidarity Day.  Two days later he preached at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church.  After taking his text from the Scripture about the three Hebrew men who refused to worship the gods of Babylon, he focused his sermon on the present conditions.  He preached that America was putting law above justice.  “I feel if the state was as concerned about justice as they are about law and order—there wouldn’t be any need for Resurrection City.”

Toward the end of his sermon he warned that more dangers were imminent, more “poverty, jailings, humiliations and murders…but we’re not goin’ to bow.”

It was a sermon that summarized Dr. King’s overall objectives, and Rev. Franklin as he had done five years previously when Dr. King came to Detroit to speak at Cobo Hall, a kind of dress rehearsal for his “I Have A Dream” speech, the minister was once again standing unwaveringly with the Drum Major for Justice.

While the revival of the Poor People’s Campaign has been active for a couple of years, it was good to see it gain traction here once more in Detroit in May with the beginning of “40 Days of Moral Action,” with the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina at the helm.

Let’s hope that his relentless fight against systemic racism accumulates the momentum needed to end policies that have torn a hole in the social safety nets and practically shredded the democratic process.

Herb Boyd, a noted journalist and historian is the author of Black Detroit—A People’s History of Self-Determination (Amistad Press, 2017) and several other books on Malcolm X and James Baldwin. He is a member of the National Advisory Panel at The PuLSE Institute.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.