Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Ride
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Tour de Troit Hosts 7th Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Ride

January 3, 2019

The annual bicycle ride through Detroit honors civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr.

By Matt Wentworth

This month, hundreds of people will honor the march of an American icon — on a bike.

Tour de Troit, a bicycling group that promotes cycling in the city, is holding its seventh annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Ride. The event, held on Jan. 21, the federal holiday honoring Dr. King, pays homage to the civil rights legend’s 1963 visit to Detroit and march down Woodward Avenue.

“You can (bike) and think about what he meant to Detroit and the world,” says Colleen Robar, spokesperson for Tour de Troit.

The ride takes a group of several hundred bicyclists 10 miles through the city, past several sites historically significant to King. Bicyclists ride past Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School on East Lafayette Street, down Martin Luther King Boulevard and many other sites.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial RideCourtesy Tour de Troit

On June 23, 1963, King led a march down Woodward called the Walk to Freedom.  It’s estimated up to 125,000 people took part in what was the largest civil rights demonstration in American history, at the time. “It was one of the most important events in the history of the country, and Detroit,” says Charles Ferrell, vice president of public programs at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. “It was a very diverse group of people. It was a march for jobs and to address poverty. It remains very relevant today.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial RideCourtesy Ed Roberson

Martin Luther King Jr. stands on a platform during a June 1963 “Walk to Freedom” in Detroit. The rally culminated at Cobo Arena, where King spoke lines from his famous “I have a dream” speech he would give at the March on Washington a few months later.

When King first delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, there was no Lincoln Memorial behind him, or reflecting pool and Washington Monument in front of him.  That’s because he was in Detroit. King finished the Walk to Freedom at Cobo Arena, where he delivered that legendary message, two months before the March on Washington.

“Detroiters had a mixed view of the speech,” Ferrell says. “Detroit had nationalist tendencies to embrace leaders like Malcolm X.”

Vittoria Katanski, director of Tour de Troit, says King relayed “an incredibly important message that’s never tired.” 

The group decided to hold the event each year on the holiday, despite the likelihood of bone-chilling temperatures. “We thought it was really important in the cold, cold winter to get the biking community together to celebrate,” Robar says. Katanski adds, “It’s a one-of-a-kind ride in the winter. It’s quiet and respectful. It’s kind of a badge of honor to ride in the winter. It feels good at the end.”

Tour de Troit Martin Luther King Memorial RideCourtesy Tour de Troit

MLK Memorial Ride participants bike through the Detroit RiverWalk.

The MLK holiday has, for many, turned into a day of service. That’s why the bike ride is free. The event also ends with a cup of hot chocolate, courtesy of Wayne State University.

The MLK Memorial Ride is one of six events held by Tour de Troit each year. In 2002, the nonprofit launched its signature event, also named Tour de Troit. It’s since raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to restore parks in Detroit. 

“The original mission was to show the bikeability of the city,” says Katanski, who is also the executive director of the Comerica Hatch Detroit Contest for entrepreneurs and small business owners. “Our mission is twofold. We want to highlight the city, and we also want people to visit the businesses and contribute back to the communities.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Ride

MLK Ride participants bike past the Renaissance Center in the distance.

Katanski says she also hopes events like these promote biking as an alternative method of transportation, as well as healthy activity. “Being out, getting the fresh air, getting to stretch your legs you feel so much better at the end of the day,” she says. Katanski also says riding a bike helps people appreciate the city in a new way. “There’s no better way to see a community.”

There’s just something about being on a bike that’s a draw for many. Many of us learn to ride bikes as children. “There’s a kid element to it,” Katanski says. “You feel young again.”

MLK Memorial Ride

Jan. 21 at 10 a.m.

Starts at Wayne State University’s McGregor Memorial Conference Center

For more information or to register, visit tour-de-troit.org/mlk-memorial-ride.

About Edward ‘Robbie’ Roberson

Ed Roberson

Edward “Robbie” Roberson began his career in photography with a camera he had purchased at a pawnshop when he was 12 years old. He soon realized that he wanted to show the world that all African-American people were not on drugs, committing crimes or standing on street corners. When citizens were taking to the streets to gain their civil rights, Roberson became a visual historian of the era.

Roberson followed the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama, Washington, D.C., and his hometown, Detroit.

His vast collection includes shots of presidents and politicians, entertainment personalities, civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., important milestones in African-American history and candid shots of ordinary people.

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