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

28 responses to “MLK

  1. I remember last years MLK on 06880. Thanks for keeping everyone thoughtful. While raising kids in this town and community is such a privilege and very fortunate experience for the kids, it is so important to keep them well-roundedand understanding of the world. At a minimum, every 06880 reader should read todays blog to their kids and/or a friend. Thanks again Dan!

  2. So beautiful and moving! Thank you for sharing and educating. Let’s honor the memory of Rev. Dr. King today with increasing compassion and doing something to help those who need our love and support. Sent from my iPhone


  3. Thank you for sharing Dan. It is so important to teach our children EMPATHY and compassion.

  4. Great article. I cant recall going to the temple and hearing MLK speak, but I wish our parents had taken us there!

  5. Rev. Alison Patton

    Thanks Dan for this rich history. But a couple notes re “Long forgotten”: an estimated 500 people gathered at the Playhouse Sunday afternoon for a Dr. King celebration and continued learning about what we need to do to dismantle racism. Thanks to all who attended and contributed to this on-going labor! The Keynote speaker, Dr. Ibram Kendi, also had an op ed in the Sunday NYTimes.

  6. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    2017 was not a good year. I hope Dr. King’s birthday at the beginning of this year is looked back on as a metaphor for our country. We are in a crisis. At the same time the President turns his back on “shit hole,” he is doing everything he can to create one from within. .

  7. M

    Sent from my iPhone


  8. Arline Gertzoff

    The program at the Playhouse yesterday was very moving.In the true spirit of MLK I would like to remember Tracy Sugarman and two young men from Norwalk Paul Morganstern and Peter Seidman who were murdered by the KKK .They were registering black voters in the Civil Rights Movement .

  9. Richard Fogel

    thanks for the story. There are millions of silent Americans who endorse racism. Racism exists in abundance in Westport Ct,06880. Numerous citizens are turning their back to racism and enabling the president . Do not be apathetic. Large numbers of racists are in our community. Stand up to racist behavior and racist behaviors and policies. What kind of country do you want for your family??

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

      Having lived in both Westport and Cincinnati I can say that you have to close the gap by actively reaching out because you’re the only one who can do that. In Cincinnati that means merely by living life. In Westport, probably not as easy. I agree that there are many silent racists but actions have always been where right or wrong occur. Lip service is worse than no service.

  10. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    Thank you Dan for keeping the tradition and for the reporting. Thank you for including Dr. King’s words, “You have to keep moving Forward.” I did what I could in the 1960’s and try to keep moving today. I feel like we are on a very slippery slope moving backward fast. Calling out what we see and not being silent is a part of keeping us moving forward.

  11. The slippery slope argument is always fascinating.
    I prefer the possibility of middle ground.

    • Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

      Sorry Nancy. I do not see a middle ground when it comes to treating all people with equal dignity and opportunity.

      • The negativity of a slippery slope leaves no room for reason, the middle ground, Mary.
        I’m only being realistic.

        • Mary Cookman Schmerker SHS '58

          All people Nancy, all genders, nationalities, ages, even those who live in Canada.

          • Thanks Mary, I completely agree, but by playing devil’s advocate yesterday I still wonder how realistic this ideal can be.

      • Kevin O'Brien

        ALL people, or only those seen as deserving of “equal dignity”?

        • Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

          All people who draw breath deserve equal treatment.

          • Kevin O'Brien

            Thank you for that truly enlightened, even handed statement. Truly a rare thing in these divisive times. I agree with you.

          • Kevin O'Brien

            Mary, what you stated so well has stuck with me all day. I would like to recommend a piece of music accordingly, and I have a feeling it represents your mindset and personality perfectly. If you have an Echo or Google Home and a music service just tell it to play “Cabrillo” by Marc Antoine. Enjoy!

  12. Kevin O'Brien

    MLK was my boyhood hero. I marched for civil rights in the south as a white teenager and was even pistol whipped by police in Atlanta, and chased out of a restaurant in Savannah as the waitress yelled “we don’t serve your kind here” at me. Not too long after that I was beaten badly by a gang of black boys for walking past a black community “turf” zone. Go figure.