Remembering the Legacy of one of America’s Great Leaders and How We Can Keep the Dream Alive in Our City

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we thought we’d make a switch and talk about something different today: dreams and opportunity. March on Washington

This year marks the 55th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, triggered by Detroiter Rosa Parks refusal to give up her seat. The boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr., lasted 385 days, resulted in the firebombing of King’s home and eventually brought about a landmark Federal ruling ending racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

It was just the first of many campaigns that King and civil rights activists both black and white conducted in the South to dismantle America’s equivalent of South Africa’s apartheid.

From Albany, Georgia to Birmingham, to Augustine and Selma and eventually the foot of the Washington Monument, King’s focus on changing policy and people’s mindset through non-violent protest eventually resulted in passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But King struggled when he tried to take his message North to cities like Chicago and Detroit.

The discrimination in these cities was less overt than in the South, but no less real. While King recognized that economic development was key to breaking down walls between black and white in the North, his organization found that the tactics that worked in Birmingham weren’t necessarily going to work in Detroit or Chicago.

Martin Luther King Jr. was still in the process of trying figure this out when at 6:01 p.m. April 4, 1968 his life was ended on the second floor balcony at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis.

According to King’s biographer Taylor Branch, an autopsy revealed that while King was only 39 years old, he had the heart of a 60 year old man.

Finishing King’s Work In Detroit

The riots that ensued in the wake of King’s assassination had a bitter irony to them. After all, for his entire life, King refused to raise a hand against his oppressors, always choosing non-violence as his preferred method of social change. Yet here was his “Promised Land” awash in fire and hate.

In Metro-Detroit, conventional wisdom continues to blame the riots of 1968 for the “white flight” to the suburbs and the eventual decay of our once thriving city. Whether the riots were the first or final nail in Detroit’s coffin depends on who you talk to. All we know is that many of us would like to start removing those nails for good. Detroit needs to look forward, not back.

Just as in 1964, when Martin Luther King Jr. tried to take his message of racial and economic equality to the North, we are still fundamentally trying to solve the very issues he struggled with here in Detroit. Today, the economic conditions for everyone in Metro-Detroit, regardless of race, stand in stark contrast to 1964 when the auto industry was booming and Detroit’s future should have been nothing but bright.

As a city and community, we have one of two choices in the middle of our current economic meltdown: Continue to deepen the self-created divide between “Detroit” and the “The Suburbs” and experience yet another decade of self-segregation and economic stagnation, or we can realize that at the core this is less about black and white, city versus suburbs, as it is local economic development and parity.

Signs of Revival

It’s been said that the night’s darkest hour comes right before the dawn.  Surely with all that this city has been through, the “dawn” can’t be far away.

There are signs of light already: We have a new mayor, there is a growing “Made in Detroit” movement, and businesses like Quicken Loans are making a commitment to move back into the city. There’s also  Bizdom U, a Detroit-based school for entrepreneurs that requires the businesses to set up shop in the city in order to receive funding.  One of those businesses is Guffly, which sells eco-friendly items made from recycled or sustainable materials. We’re big fans of Guffly and their products around Urban Optiques.

I could be threatened by having a company like Quicken Loans (which is less than seven minutes from my office) move their employees downtown.  I could play into the entire “us versus them” mentality that has permeated this city for the better part of five decades.

But I refuse to.

I believe that if you offer something great, people will come to you regardless of your location.

A Land of Opportunity

I grew up in Lansing, not Detroit, so perhaps I have the benefit of not having history here. Sometimes a past can hold you back, instead of help you move forward.Historic Photo of Woodward Avenue

When I look at Detroit, all I see is opportunity, not the remnants of “my old neighborhood.” And, yes, I see this even in the middle of this state’s worst recession ever.

In talking with other people about the future of Detroit, I have noticed that some of Detroit’s biggest fans aren’t from here or didn’t grow up here. They are people from other places who don’t carry the baggage that has been accumulated among longtime citizens of the suburbs and city.

When these people see the Detroit train station, they don’t see the past, they see a future. They see gleaming trains rolling in and out.

When they see a once-grand Tudor house on a block overcome with weeds, they can picture it with green grass and new windows and colorful paint.

Where others see highways, they see mass transit rails moving people in and out of the city with shopping bags in their hands or children in-tow after a Tigers game.

When they look in the windows of boarded up shops on Woodward, they see not darkness, but lights and the faces of people behind shattered glass, now made whole and clear and happy.

When confronted with empty streets, they fill them with people in their minds, moving from store-to-store, dressed to the nines for a night at the Opera or heading back to a loft a few blocks away after work.

Of Dreamers and Drum Majors



But isn’t that really what today is all about: One man’s dream and a dream that was shared by many others. A dream that fortified men and women to face down fire hoses and attack dogs, to walk to their jobs for 385 days rather than board a segregated bus or to be one of nine students to walk a gauntlet of hate to attend your first day of school.

Our dreams seem so easy in comparison to theirs.  But at their core, they are fundamentally the same: To be able to live up to your potential and stand or fall on your own achievements and mistakes, and not on what someone expects you to be or do.

That is something that we all want, and skin color and economics has nothing to do with it. It is universal, and it’s what MLK was talking about when he imagined “The Promised Land.”

My personal dream is to eventually open a second Urban Optiques in downtown Detroit. It’s a ways off, but it will happen. I can already see the frames in the windows and already have my buildings picked. I just need a little time and some other people to go back to the city with me. They are out there and we will find each other.

Before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. described how he hoped to be remembered.  Here is what he said:Martin Luther King Jr.

“I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.

I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. And I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.

Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major. Say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Today, let’s lose our past and only look for opportunities. We all need to be “drum majors” and finish MLK’s dream  … in Detroit.

Category : Urban Optiques

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Urban Optiques provides vision care, eye exams & exclusive designer eyewear to Northville, Plymouth, Novi, Livonia, Ann Arbor, Farmington, West Bloomfield, Royal Oak, Ferndale, Birmingham, & Metro-Detroit.

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