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 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

18 responses to “MLK

  1. MLK said that “The white moderate is more of a threat than the Ku Klux Klanner.” Prophetic words that should be internalized by all of us who, in an “all white” town, pretend to give great respect to MLK Day.

  2. I never find errors in 06880 but today noticed in its fine segment on MLK that Roe Halper’s name is misspelled as Harper in the photo credit. If readers have time today or for the next few weeks, they should visit the Westport Historical Society’s
    fine exhibit called “Remembered” . Roe Halper’s experience with MLK is an important part of the exhibit.
    Thanks again Dan for another fine piece.

    Ed Gerber

  3. Thank you, Dan, for posting this wonderful and informative information. I will be thinking of Dr. Martin Luther King today and hope that his movement continues to move forward.

  4. John F. (J-period) Wandres

    I read accounts of Westport in the ‘sixties and wish I had been at Staples during those days instead of the ‘fifties. I can’t remember any of my classmates from the class of 1953 that protested against anything — of importance, at least. So many of us were caught up — and caught in our own little cocoon of acquiring and displaying our social importance: Pink button-down shirts from Brooks Brothers and scuffed dirty white bucks shoes. Our class had two colored — sorry, Negro — sorry, again: African-American students; one male and one female, and they were all but socially invisible to the rest. Social activism? What was that? We won the War, didn’t we? No more gasoline rationing. Yea! Let’s party.

    • It’s amazing how the pure chance of where and when we are born can shape our lives. I’m glad I grew up when I did (60’s and ’70s). Interestingly, in today’s challenging times, I see two types of teenagers at Staples (and, anecdotally, across the country): those who are very energized and engaged politically, and those who are completely turned off by the political process.

      • Jean Marie Wiesen

        Same here. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, too, in S. CA. I’ve been here since the early 80s. Remaining involved is imperative, imo. I’ve always felt Dr. King was ahead of his time. His words hold as much value and import, today as when he spoke them, if not more. Thanks for your article.

      • A few Staples students in 1947 got together with some White and Black students from Norwalk and tested a few restaurants for discrimination. A bar and grill in South Norwalk refused to serve Blacks and we actually took it to court. We tested the Silvermine Tavern and The Red Barn with no problems. Colgan’s Drugstore in Westport, corner of Taylor Place and the Post Road, was known to refuse Blacks at their lunch counter. This was all long before the sit-ins down South.

        • Fascinating. Was there newspaper coverage of this? Thanks.

          • Hi Fred. I think a Norwalk paper covered the trial of the bar & grill. In Westport, the opportunist editor Percy Stone tried to make it into a subversive plot. The McCarthy era was coming.

  5. Thanks again Dan. Today, many of us are thinking about MLK and what he would say today. I remember the Intercommunity Camp well. It was a great experience for all. I’d like to add that in junior high a group of us from Coleytown went to an elementary school in Norwalk to tutor children weekly. They were all, or almost all children of color. It was a great shock and awakening for me as the kids were way behind academically and the resources (book, paper, etc.) were abysmal. Yet, it was just a short drive away.

    • As a close friend of D. Broadman’s growing up, I too had the wonderful experience of being part of both the Intercommunity camp and traveling to Norwalk to tutor children weekly. The Intercommunity camp in honor of MLK was a great experience for the counselors – we met counselors from Norwalk – as well as for the campers. I was extremely touched when one of my campers from Bridgeport tracked me down on LinkedIn recently to thank me for the connection we had. There were also many generous Westport families who let the campers swim daily at their pools. I miss those days! Dan (and Dorothy),thanks for allowing us to remember!

  6. Jean Heinrich Bolivar

    Intercommunity Camp or ICC was a wonderful part of my childhood. I was unaware of the reasons of it’s founding or dissolution. I always assumed insurance costs were the reason it closed. Thank you for the history lesson.

  7. We recently saw a fabulous documentary out here in SoCal, “Rosenwald,” that was introduced by a rabbi who has done research into the relationship between Jewish and African-American leaders during the civil rights movement. I talked to him afterwards and asked if he had heard of Rabbi Rubinstein and whether he knew of his (and other rabbis’) involvement in the protest in St. Augustine, FL. He absolutely did know about Rabbi Rubinstein.

    And, if you want to learn about a fascinating story of a large-scale philanthropic effort of which, quite frankly, I had never heard of, go see “Rosenwald”: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2514028/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl

  8. Moving article, thanks. Incredible how Staples has touched and changed so many of our family’s lives.

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