MLK

This 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.”

Martin Luther King, with Sarah and Tema Kaiser at their home on Brooklawn Drive, before his Temple Israel appearance. Their brother Michael had a cold, and was not allowed near Dr. King.

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.”

Dr. Martin Luther King

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

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Martin Luther King Day bonus feature: In the late 1950s, Westporter Tracy Sugarman took his son Dickie, and Dickie’s friend Miggs Burroughs, to a picnic in Stamford.

Rev. Martin Luther King was there, at the invitation of the host: Jackie Robinson.

Sugarman — a noted illustrator – was also a civil rights activist.

Miggs — a junior high student — took the Minox “spy” camera he’d bought earlier that summer.

He still has those photos. Here are the 2 pioneering Black Americans: Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson.

(Photos/Miggs Burroughs)

12 responses to “MLK

  1. Great post, Dan.

  2. Tema and Miggs: thanks for providing these photos that are truly snapshots of area history.

    In Tema’s case, other than for a couple of photos of Dr. King at Temple Israel, I do not recall having seen any other pictures documenting his visit to Westport in May 1964.

  3. Indeed; we should “Think about our history before Martin Luther King was born. And yet, there are so many who would tear down the statues, designation and institution names and art work that remind us of our cruel past.
    The Taliban did it…we should not.”

  4. Laurence A Grayhills

    We’ve made 50 years of social progress…let us not slip backwards as recent events would seem to indicate.

  5. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    “Few will give any thought to Martin Luther King.” What makes you say that? It really begs for dialogue.

    • Because most people just consider this a day off work. They don’t consider Dr. King’s life or legacy. That’s been my observation over the years.

      • Once, again, old Dan has got it right…I’m afraid.

        • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

          It sounded somewhat assumptive and frankly, not easy for me to understand. I don’t consider myself much different than anyone else. I’ll never forget the day it happened and our lives have never been the same since. Our “leaders” use it as just another photo-op.

  6. Dr. King must have traveled throughout the area in May of 1964 speaking on behalf of Civil Rights. I attended a speech of his that month at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, the Bronx, presented by the Society for Ethical Culture.

    I really don’t remember what he said, but I do remember being so moved that tears ran down my face.

  7. You should add that he had dinner with the Beskinds onStonybrook Rd

  8. Alison Ehrlich Wachstein

    Wonderful post, Dan. And thank you Rabbi NB of TI for posting the link.

  9. I was living in Westport when Dr. King was shot, shocking. Then when just 3 months later when Robert Kennedy was shot, it was almost more than we, meaning friends, could take in we were all around 22-24 years old. In 5 years we had seen some of best and brightest leaders cut down. When JFK was shot l was still living in my native Denmark, but was no less affected. We did what Americans and most of the world did, sat glued to the TV that awful weekend.

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