MLK

This story ran last year. Several readers asked me to republish it today. Here it is.

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.

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

12 responses to “MLK

  1. Thank you, Dan. You are a wonderful asset to our community.

  2. Beautifully written Dan. Thanks for remembering a great American!

  3. Well said, Dan.
    ADW Staples 1956

  4. Well worth republishing–and I’m still hoping Tema Kaiser Silk (Staples ’71) can track down the picture of MLK posing with the Kaiser children and share it with us.

  5. Thanks Dan… well said!

  6. Just came from the same MLK breakfast I have gone to for some 16 years. Thank you, Danny. Fine piece. Love the picture and quote at the end. A good thought for aging people too!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  7. Perhaps I misread or misunderstood your last comment on this piece about Reverend King being a long forgotten memory.
    I respectfully disagree Dan. I remember this great man well. Every time I see our current Presiden, I realize how far we have come as a nation. Yes we have a lot more to do to finish his work and fulfill his dream, but we are closer.
    We backslide too often, but if we hold on to his memory.., we will get there and “we shall overcome!”

  8. Shamir Clayton

    Great article. Thank you Dan!

  9. Rabbi Rubenstein should be remembered in a bigger way than he is in town. I was a little catholic girl who was very impressed by the Rabbi and the kindness in his face and manner. We were very ecumenical in those days. The only time I saw the Rabbi preach(?) was at Assumption Church as part of an ecumenical service (perhaps for Peace in Vietnam?) He was always around town and around Coleytown because his daughter was in the class just below mine. I think Temple Israel was new if I am not mistaken. He was a great man who did what MLK did.. make progress without violence. Rubenstein’s arrest is so meaningful! (Dan, we had a black vice principal? Where was I?) I might not remember Fermino but I do remember MLK and Rabbi Rubenstein.

    • Fermino Spencer (Staples HS vice principal) was a Brown University graduate, former Peace Corps worker and social activist. Principal Jim Calkins hired him to give students increased responsibility to discover themselves and their place in the world. In a September “Inklings” interview soon after he was hired, he challenged Staples students to go to “the slums of Bridgeport and Norwalk.” He said, “It’s very easy to give money, but it si difficult to give of your time and energy.”

      He said that sending 85 percent of students did not necessarily mean they were receiving the best education possible. He wanted to develop a curriculum to extend learning from the classroom to the community, and help “this generation to become the responsible generation.”

      Mr. Spencer stayed only onoe year. He resigned, to go into government service. “Inklings” writer Steve Foley called the reaction to the “fiery” vice principal’s decision to elave as shock, dismay and anger. “He is the only man in the Westport schools who has made any effort to try to get rid of the problems of racism and apathy in Westport,” one student said.

      All this information is in my book on the history of Staples: “120 Years of A+ Education.”

  10. I just can’t believe it. Thanks Dan. Do you have the Inklings article? I sure would like to read it.