Press enter after choosing selection
Ann Arbor 200

Second Baptist Church's Unity March for Martin Luther King, Jr.

 In 1983, members of the Second Baptist Church of Ann Arbor began a decades-long tradition of honoring Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Every January, congregants led a Unity March from downtown Ann Arbor to their church at 850 Red Oak Road. 

Ronald C. Woods, emeritus professor at Eastern Michigan University, explains the significance of the first Unity March: “One of our deacons at the church, Deacon Richard Garland, proposed the idea that we begin recognizing what would become the national holiday on our own, as early as January of 1983.” The first national observance of Martin Luther King Day was not until 1986.

marchers hold banner that reads "we shall overcome"
Members of the Second Baptist Church Participate in Unity March to Commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., January 1983
Black man holds bullhorn
Deacon Richard D. Garland Leads Second Baptist Church Annual Unity March To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 1987

Second Baptist’s pastor at the time, Reverend Emmett L. Green, was an enthusiastic supporter. With the help of dedicated church members who organized transportation, refreshments, banners, and printed song cards, the first Unity March drew over 350 people

In Ann Arbor, the Unity March raised awareness for an issue that had not yet gained support in the federal government–honoring Dr. King’s legacy with a national holiday. “The first march,” Woods noted, “was really designed to be not just a march of Second Baptist Church, but a march that would embrace the entire community.” City councilors, activists, and members of other churches were among those who joined. 

Marchers stand in front of courthouse
Second Baptist Church Annual Unity March To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 1991

Second Baptist Church’s efforts motivated many Ann Arborites to reflect on King’s memory. Mayor Louis C. Belcher proclaimed the day of the march–Sunday, January 16, 1983–Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Ann Arbor. Other residents were inspired to attend the 1983 March on Washington, the twenty-year anniversary of the occasion of Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. In later years, unity marches took place on campus and other parts of town.

Marches were a powerful symbol of Dr. King’s philosophy of nonviolence. When King led a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, it was in direct response to the events of Bloody Sunday, when police officers attacked unarmed civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The Selma to Montgomery march inspired widespread support for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a key victory in the quest for equal rights.

Marchers carry banner down Miller Ave
Second Baptist Church Annual Unity March To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 1995

Deacon Garland, the organizer of the first Unity March, had a personal connection to the civil rights leader. Dr. King addressed his college graduation class in 1968, just weeks before he was killed. In the early years of the Unity March, many members of Second Baptist Church had first-hand memories of attending civil rights marches and protests. As the decades passed, their commitment to the march shifted towards educating younger generations about Dr. King’s legacy. 

“I wanted my daughters to remember why we marched,” said Associate Minister of Second Baptist Church Patricia Byrd. “I didn’t want them to forget. A lot of times you can get really busy, and you can think about it as a holiday we celebrate in January, and not the man behind it.”

The Unity March ensured that the lessons of the civil rights movement would be passed down to the next generation. When Deacon Garland moved out of state and Rev. Green retired, other church leaders like Ronald Woods stepped up. Woods placed young church members at the front of the march, carrying banners and lanterns. Printed song lyrics helped them follow along with civil rights anthems their parents and grandparents knew by heart. 

Young Black girls in winter coats
Second Baptist Church Annual Unity March To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 1994
Children carry lanterns and banners
Young Marchers Lead the Way at Second Baptist Church Annual Unity March To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 1997

“We always sang ‘We Shall Overcome,’” longtime Second Baptist member Audrey Lucas recalled. “That was on the top of the list. And I know we always sang ‘We’re Marching to Zion.’” The strongest voices in the group encouraged others to join in and keep up the pace. Lucas noted that Rev. Byrd “had a voice that would help you get down the road.”

Byrd, on the other hand, remembered nearly being outpaced by some of the older members of the congregation, who were veteran marchers. “I never realized how hilly the streets are here in Ann Arbor,” she said. “You have to go up and down on the way to the church. But it was wonderful because people would wave at you and cars would blow their horns, and that energized me.”

Black man and woman singing and leading marchers
Rev. Pat Byrd-Dixon and Ronald Woods Lead Second Baptist Church Annual Unity March To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 2007
Black women hold bullhorn and sing from lyric sheet
Second Baptist Church Annual Unity March To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 1991

Singing civil rights hymns and carrying banners proclaiming their mission, marchers often faced cold weather and slippery sidewalks. Dedicated marchers like Lucas participated regardless of the conditions: “When weather was bad you had to worry about making sure you had good boots on so you wouldn’t be sliding all over the place.” 

Lucas, a former clerk for Second Baptist Church, regularly made arrangements with the city to open the Washtenaw County Courthouse on North Main Street for participants to gather prior to the march. From there, the 1-mile route went north on Main Street to Miller Road, past the railroad tracks and West Park all the way to Red Oak Road. 

When marchers arrived at Second Baptist Church, refreshments and fellowship awaited. Chili, hot chocolate, apple cider, and donuts were a regular part of the menu provided by the Nurse's Guild. A display of photographs and past programs in the vestibule educated visitors about the history of the march. A Memorial and Rededication program always capped off the day’s events with prayer and a keynote address.

Marchers approach church
Members of the Second Baptist Church Participate in Unity March to Commemorate Martin Luther King Jr., January 1983
Black children look at display of news articles featuring Dr. King
Children Study Posters at the Second Baptist Church Annual Memorial To Honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 2000

Although Second Baptist Church no longer holds the Unity March, they still observe Unity Sunday prior to Martin Luther King Day. This year, 2024, the keynote speaker was Shannon Polk, President and CEO of the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation.

As a Baptist minister, Dr. King’s connections to the church ran deep. Second Baptist Church was the first organization in Ann Arbor to honor his memory with a tradition of prayer, song, and marching. Woods put it in a nutshell: the Unity March was “a way of bringing together the important role of the African American church in the social justice journey of the United States.”

Special Promo Image
Ann Arbor 200 release #4
Special Promo