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

16 responses to “MLK

  1. Charles Taylor

    Great article Dan. We need the reverend King as much as ever today!

  2. Camilla Franz

    While this is certainly a ‘cute story’ and worthy of repeating the telling of its’ tale, a much more powerful use of your blog would be to report on Carol Andersons’ recent Westport Playhouse talk at the celebration of Dr. King yesterday. Ms. Anderson has penned the exceptionally relevant and very powerful book “White Rage”, which all but flushes out the true cause of the dire situation we are dealing with as a country today.

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Dan, if you could, would you please elaborate on Mr. Spencer? I remember the name and his involvement with the ICC but little else. How long was he at Staples and what’s his “story”?
    Also, please keep with the stories including the “cute” ones.

    • I believe he was only at Staples for a year or two. I think he went on to government service — the Peace Corps? If any reader has more information, please add it here in the Comments section. Thank you!

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

        Dan, you are starting to bring my memory back. I believe he was an english teacher and did in fact leave SHS for the Peace Corps after a short time. Sorely missed as I recall after 50+ years.

  4. Connie Stein Beskind

    The night that MLK spoke at Temple Israel he had dinner at the home of
    Irene&Stan Beskind.

  5. David Harrison

    Fermino Spencer was a vice principal at Staples for only one year. He came to the job from an experience as a Peace Corps administrator, I believe in Africa…though he spoke little of that background. While I don’t remember the details of his bio, I do remember thinking he was so very OVER qualified to be a vice principal.

    Fermino’s presentation in the Staples courtyard in the immediate aftermath of Dr King’s assasination was so emotionally powerful, it left most of us—adults and students—either in tears or on the verge. But, I also remember being taken aback by the few who said they could not understand what all the fuss was about.

    After one year, Fermino left Staples for a position in DC. I often wondered if Staples wasn’t in his mind an interim stop back into the U S after the Peace Corps experience. I was selfishly disappointed when he left us.

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

      With that kind of a background it was our loss that he was only at Staples one year. Had there been more time I’m sure he would have left more of a mark.

      • Peter Gambaccini

        I think few of the students knew Fermino Spencer at all. Some of the vice principals or assistant principals had considerable direct contact with students (I’m thinking of William Murphy from that era) but others had more behind-the-scenes administrative duties. I had certainly seen Mr. Spencer walking through the halls but had never spoken to him. The fact that we knew so little about him in some way made his speech even more powerful.

  6. Celeste Champagne

    If you were at the Westport Country Playhouse yesterday afternoon, Martin Luther King, Jr. as definitely not forgotten, but represented in full force by a program sponsored by the Playhouse, the Interfaith Council of Westport & Weston, the Westport Library and TEAM Westport. The turnout was great!

  7. Amy Steiner Schafrann

    Dan, I was one of the fortunate ones to be a counselor at the Intercommunity Camp where many of our friends worked. I was very touched when one of my campers from Bridgeport found me recently via Facebook to let me know how much the experience meant to him. It meant a lot to me too! A special time in Westport!

    • Great story, Amy! It speaks to the power of small acts — and human connections. We don’t always know the impact we have on someone. How great that yours was so positive and meaningful.