Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work.  Some will sleep in; others will ski, or take part in a Staples basketball clinic for younger players. Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.

Twice, though, his life intersected this town in important ways.

Martin Luther KingThe first was Friday night, May 22, 1964. According to Woody Klein’s book Westport, Connecticut, King had been invited to speak at Temple Israel by synagogue member Jerry Kaiser.

King arrived in the afternoon. Kaiser and his wife Roslyn sat on their porch that afternoon, and talked with King and 2 of his aides. She was impressed with his “sincerity, warmth, intelligence and genuine concern for those about him — our children, for instance. He seemed very young to bear such a burden of leadership.”

King’s sermon — to a packed audience — was titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” He analogized his America to the time of Rip Van Winkle — who also “slept through a revolution. The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.  We must support the social movement of the Negro.”

Westport artist Roe Halper presented King with 3 woodcarvings, representing the civil rights struggle. He hung them proudly in the front hallway of his Atlanta home.

Artist Roe Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Artist Roe Halper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

Within a month Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron Rubenstein, traveled south to take place in a nonviolent march. He was arrested — along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

In jail, the rabbi said, “I came to know the greatness of Dr. King. I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only worship of faith, joy and determination.”

King touched Westport again less than 4 years later. On April 5, 1968 — the day after the civil rights leader’s assassination in Memphis — 600 Staples students gathered for a lunchtime vigil in the courtyard. Nearby, the flag flew at half-staff.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

A small portion of the large crowd listens intently to Fermino Spencer, in the Staples courtyard.

Vice principal Fermino Spencer addressed the crowd. Movingly, he spoke about  his own experience as an African American. Hearing the words “my people” made a deep impression on the almost all-white audience. For many, it was the 1st time they had heard a black perspective on white America.

No one knew what lay ahead for their country. But student Jim Sadler spoke for many when he said: “I’m really frightened. Something is going to happen.”

Something did — and it was good. A few hundred students soon met in the cafeteria. Urged by a minister and several anti-poverty workers to help bridge the chasm between Westport and nearby cities, Staples teachers and students vowed to create a camp.

Within 2 months, it was a reality. That summer 120 elementary and junior high youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport participated in the Intercommunity Camp. Led by over 100 Staples students and many teachers, they enjoyed swimming, gymnastics, dance, sports, field trips, overnight camping, creative writing, filmmaking, photography, art and reading.

It wasn’t easy — some in Westport opposed bringing underprivileged children to their town — but for over a decade the Intercommunity Camp flourished.

Eventually, enthusiasm for and interest in the camp waned. Fewer Staples students and staff members wanted to devote their summer to such a project.  The number of Westporters willing to donate their pools dwindled. Today the Intercommunity Camp is a long-forgotten memory.

Sort of like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Even on his birthday.

MLK speech

16 responses to “MLK

  1. Very nice Dan. I recall that day at Staples as if were yesterday. I am in Washington about to leave for The Inaugural. The city is electric

  2. Sank T. Monious

    Dan, The only people who will give no thought to MLK are people who have no clue what day it is. But that’s their problem every day. you’re not one of them, bubba!!!!

  3. Thanks for the wonderful post, Dan. I was very involved in the camp – I was a counselor there for several years and later on the Board and co-produced a fundraiser for it with a Don McLean concert at the then-Bedford Junior High School. The camp embodied the ideals of Martin Luther King and the idealism of that day. I never knew the whole backstory about Martin Luther King coming to Westport nor the involvement of the Kaisers, who were good friends of my father. Thanks for making sure we all remember. All best.

  4. MLK; Letter from Birmingham Jail.

    “…sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

    You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

    Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and awful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.”

  5. Charles Halper

    Thanks, Dan, for including me in the article today. It is interesting that I would have never thought of presenting these woodcarvings to Dr. King. It was Sue Rubenstein who asked me to bring all my civil rights work to their house so he could see them before dinner. I told her that if he wanted any of them, he could have them and he chose the Birmingham series—violence to the Afro-Americans, Prayer, what to do and finally Action. Actually I first thought that Prayer was the Martin Luther King approach and the Action was the beginning of the young (SNCC) approach. These woodcarvings were in his house until Coretta King died and I have no idea where they are today. I had assumed they were in the MLK Museum in Atlanta, but no matter how often I ask them, they do not reply. Strange, isn’t it? I do not think the house on Sunset was kept as a museum with all his awards in tact. I just assumed they were in the museum.


  6. Dan, I think a lot of us think of MLK this day, but your thoughtful column today adds more substance to our thoughts. Thank you. I am impressed with the number of children I encounter who have learned of him in school. A young teacher friend in Denver writes me that today she is taking her kindergarteners to the MLK parade there… — Karl Decker

  7. Marc Selverstone

    Great post, Dan. I especially liked the picture and story of Roe Halper and the Kings. One other enduring Westport connection to MLK: Michele Rubin, Staples ’81, is literary executor of the King estate, and established the King Legacy Series imprint with Beacon Press, which publishes King’s writings, lectures, and sermons.

  8. I was honored to attend Dr. King’s speech at Temple Israel, invited by my friend from Orchestra, Jon Rubenstein (son of Rabbi Rubenstein). I was active in the Civil Rights movement in Westport (there was a strong, vibrant one). I have never forgotten those times, and observe Dr King’s holiday every year with solemnity and gratitude. Today also being the public Inauguration of President Obama is very meaningful.

  9. Tema Kaiser (a friend from the class of ’71) has a photo of Dr. King with her family at her home before they all headed over to Temple Israel. I’ll try to get that for you to add to this post.

  10. My post about Tema came through as “Anonymous”–sorry about that. In any event, I wanted to add that the fact that Westport was the type of community in 1964 that would welcome Dr. King was one of the primary reasons my parents decided to move here a year earlier.

  11. I attended ICC and still speak of it with awe and as a formative part of my childhood. I had no idea it was started in response to MLK’s assassination. Thank you for the history lesson.

  12. Dan, thanks for the rich history involving another Westport connection. Seems I arrived a year late but am very familiar with the Intercommunity Camp. I’ve added a unit in a public speaking course I teach that includes the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’sGettysburg Address and King’s I Have a Dream speech. Obama’s speech today reflected all three. We need only look to the lessons of the past to solve the problems of today. There should be a course (not just a unit) that ties these historical “events” together. I see it as a multi-faceted class that teaches history, ethics, writing, speaking and community (probably more than that). They are all so audience centered that philosphically everyone can be embraced.

  13. Life-Long Westporter

    I attended the inter- community camp and it was wonderful. Homeowners opened their pools to us and we swam in a different one every day. A camp friend and I made a film. I filmed her house in Bridgeport and then we filmed mine. I still have the tape. Ever day you could pick a different activity. I remember it was a wonderful summer!

  14. I was one sitting in front of the cafeteria that day. I remember the quiet as we listening to the words and the intensity of the feelings and fears wondering what would happen next.

  15. What ever become of Fermino Spencer, Dan?

    • He became director of the Agency for International Development’s Central and West African regional affairs in the 1970s. Not sure about his career afterward.