his story has become a Martin Luther King Day tradition on “06880.” After the events of the past couple of years, today — 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.
The 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.
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.
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 would be horrified to see what the world has become.
I’m glad to be old and probably not see the worst of what is to come, yet worry at the world my son has no choice but to live in.
Volumes could be written yet what is the point when society has been so effectively divided and polarised against each other. All that can happen now is that this path embarked on will most likely go to its bitter end rather than cooler, wiser minds intervening.
You can do your gloom & doom sir …
I prefer “you have to keep moving forward”
Thanks for this fascinating “intersection” Dan, and putting the day in perspective.
Thank you for this piece, Dan. My brother and I attended Intercommunity Camp in the early 70s. I had no idea it was inspired by Dr. King.
I was fortunate enough to be a counselor at Intercommunity Camp!
I was excited when almost 50 years later one of my campers
from Bridgeport found me on Facebook to let me know how
much the experience meant to him. He then connected with
the Bacharach family as well! I hope there were other campers
that felt that way. It was an experience I will always remember and cherish as a counselor!
In 1944, as a college student, MLK traveled to Simsbury, Connecticut to pick tobacco to make money. His experience in Connecticut helped shape him.
I was a counselor at the Intercommunity camp for two years, 1969 and 1970. That experience was one of most impactful and positive experiences of my life. If only the world could be as accepting and beautiful an environment as that camp, we could all look to a better future.