This story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.” After the events of the past several months, this year — more than ever — we should think about the history of our nation before Dr. King was born.

And where we are, more than half a century after his death.

Today is Martin Luther King Day. Westporters will celebrate with a day off from school or work. Some will sleep in; others will shop, or go for a walk. 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

10 responses to “MLK

  1. There is another anecdote about Martin Luther King, Jr. in Westport. He was friendly with Justine Smadbeck, who wrote for the Amsterdam News (a Harlem newspaper) under the name Gertrude Wilson. Every summer the Smadbeck family rented the dark green shingle house overlooking Compo Beach at the corner of Soundview and Norwalk Avenue. One summer in the 1960’s Dr. King and his family visited the Smadbecks at that house. I have been told that owner drove by and saw black children on the front porch, and that the next summer the owner refused to rent the house to the Smadbecks.

    • Your Barnaby’s brother (and Roger was your dad)? If so, was your family friends with the Smadbecks back in the day (and is that how you heard this story)? Quite frankly, I had never heard of Justine Smadbeck but was just reading about her online. What a fascinating life she led.

      PS—please give my regards to Barnaby whom I haven’t had contact with in decades.

  2. I remember that gathering in the courtyard. As children coming of age in the late sixties, the bullet that killed Dr. King wounded our idealism. It shattered the bubble that protected our white privilege. Personally, it was life changing. It fueled a fire to understand how race works in this country, and ultimately led to a degree in Social Justice Theory and a career as a diversity educator.

  3. Eric Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    I’ll bet that if you think very hard you can come up with a memory more uplifting. Maybe I’m wrong.

  4. Arline Gertzoff

    On MLK Day I also remember Tracy Sugarman who did so much to open our eyes to the Civil Rights struggle.His dignity and devotion to civil rights should never be forgotten.A true Westport hero.

  5. Stephen Axthelm

    Maybe this would be a fitting year for some Staples students to relaunch the camp or a version thereof.

  6. Arline Spot on! Tracy was an amazing man…we both shared mutual friends in Venora and LeRoy Ellis…He would come in the store and we talk about civil rights and his journey as he saw it all unfold…Thank you for bringing up Tracy…

  7. Memories don’t have to be uplifting to be instructive. As per Mr. Buchroeder’s comment, perhaps it may be instructive to think of the incident Mr. Starr described as a kind of baseline. Would something like that ever happen in Westport today? If you think how unlikely that is, perhaps that in itself is uplifting.

    Full disclosure: I have heard that story before; Adam Starr is my husband. So think how amazed the children of today would be to hear of something like that. Wouldn’t they find it strange? Outrageous? And isn’t that fact something uplifting?

    On a different tangent, for perhaps one more uplifting note: Dr. King’s words that encourage us to look into our hearts: to judge a person not by the color of their skin, but by their character — to look into their eyes — we can think of that, too, if we seek for words uplifting. No one has yet said it better.

  8. To Fred Cantor, Yes I am Barnaby’s brother and Roger’s son. Barnaby is a pediatrician and lives outside Baltimore. I will remember you to him. The Smadbecks were close friends of our family. They had four red haired sons. Louis was a enthusiastic and friendly man. Very community spirited and you read about Justine. Louis organized a father son softball game that took place every summer Sunday morning at the compo beach ballfield. Everyone was welcome and the smaller kids were often allowed (a lot) more than three strikes. Those games were good fun and I remember them fondly. Unfortunately, they ended when the Smadbeck’s no longer rented the house on the corner of Norwalk Avenue.

    To Mr. Buchroeder, the truth is not always uplifting, even in places like Westport that have an almost mythical self regard for their “supposed commitment to social justice. We can all admire the courage and decency of people like Justine Smadbeck, and equally disdain the prejudice and selfishness of the owner of their longtime summer residence. However, the truth is that when it comes to living our lives most of the time the vast majority of us would be somewhere between those two extremes. What is “uplifting” is to remind ourselves of the difference between good and bad conduct so that we me tend towards the better. Had there not been people like the landlord, there never would have been a need for Dr. King to be anything but a local minister tending to his own congregation.