MLK

This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.”

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

15 responses to “MLK

  1. one of my favorite columns of the year, thanks Dan, awesome read and extremely important.

  2. Thanks for the memory in your blog, Dan. I was 27 when I met Dr. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel and Sue Rubenstein insisted that I show my civil rights work to him at Rabbi’s and her home where he was having Sabbath dinner. He chose the 3 “Birmingham series-1963” as his favorite and I sent them on to him at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta. Two years later my husband Chuck and I went to visit him and by then they were displayed at the entrance of his home. Coretta King said most of their entertaining of staff and visitors were there so she had them moved from the SCLC office. It was one of the most memorable days of our life together.

  3. Trish Lawrence

    My family watched birth of a Nation this weekend. This is a movie not to be missed, really terrific!

  4. Phyllis Hirschfield

    Thank you for sharing the history of Westport at its best. I hope it inspires all who read this to reflect and take action to protect the civil rights of all people.

  5. A wonderful “06880” tradition; and hopefully Tema Kaiser Silk will be able to find the photo of Dr. King at her home with the Kaiser kids and share that here.

  6. Mary (Cookman) Schmerker Staples 1958

    Thank you Dan. This article, at least for me, takes on more significance this year than it has in many years. Dr. King’s quote: “The greatest liability of history is that people fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.”
    We may be witnessing another revolution taking place and we may fail to see the significance and remain quiet. I recently learned that my generation is called the silent generation ( following The Greatest Generation). We all need to speak up and not be silent when we see injustice. We need to remain alert if we think that our first amendment rights are in jeopardy, that the free press is being squashed we need to say so. We also need to remember Rubenstein’s quote about Dr. King in jail: “I never heard a word of hate or buttered from that man.” We need to be sure that we are not acting or speaking from a position of hate or bitterness but from a place of determination to uphold the values of our country and not slide backward.

  7. Once again I am so grateful for all
    Information you share with us, your
    readers. We learn something new
    every day!

  8. Thanks Dan. Any knowledge of what happened to Mr. Spencer?

  9. Rosa sat so that Martin could run

    Martin walked so that Obama could run

    Obama ran so that our children can fly!

    I don’t know who wrote this, but I love what it conveys