Martin Luther King’s connection to Canada

King attended the 1956 Emancipation Day celebrations in Windsor

Martin Luter King Jr. at Emancipation Day celebrations in Winsor

An international student at the University of Windsor who grew up in Africa and the Netherlands says today [King was born January 15] is very special to her.

It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day — a federal holiday in the U.S. commemorating the life of the iconic American civil rights leader who was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968 but whose fight for equality, particularly for Black Americans, continues.

That legacy resonates with Lila Happy, who has been writing about King and his connection to Windsor.

“I would say as early as Grade 4 or 5, that’s when we were taught about him and I just really admired how he fought for human rights in the most peaceful way,” said Happy, a fourth-year law and political science student at the university.

“It wasn’t until the research I did this week that I learned more about his life story.”

Happy, who is also a project assistant for initiatives against anti-Black racism at her university, wrote an essay about King sharing what she’s learned.

“In Canada, we might feel detached from the Black history in the United States, however it’s really interesting to learn that Dr. King had ties to Canada,” she said.

King attended the 1956 Emancipation Day celebrations in Windsor and gave a speech which sadly was not recorded. But Happy sees this visit as extremely important, as the city has a role in the Underground Railroad. Many enslaved Black Americans found a pathway to freedom through Canada and many made homes in Essex County.

Lila Happy

Irene Moore Davis, president of the Essex County Black Historical Research Society, said King was one of many leaders in the Civil Rights movement to come to Windsor for its renowned Emancipation celebrations, which attracted thousands of people each year.

“African American activists could cross the border from Detroit with relative ease to access a large, supportive, receptive audience gathered from a wide geographic area, without being at risk of dealing with the more aggressive forms of harassment activists often faced from law enforcement in the U.S.,” she said in an email.

“In a way, the reception of African American activists at Windsor’s Emancipation events in the 20th century was a natural continuation of the ways African American abolitionists had settled in Windsor, Sandwich and other points on the Detroit River to use this area as a safer base of operations for their important work in the 19th century.”

Happy credits King with her career aspirations of wanting to be a lawyer and humanitarian.

“A lot of people might not know that Dr. King actually got a C in public speaking during seminary school, and he is remembered as one of the greatest speakers of all time,” she said.

“So that encouraged me as well, because English is my fourth out of five languages, and I wasn’t very comfortable with English.”