Tag Archives: Jackie Robinson

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)

From Polo Grounds To Cooperstown — Via Westport

Westporters flocking to “42” are inspired by the story of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.

But 3 years after Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the sport still grappled with integration — not on the field, but in the stands. An intriguing incident involved 1 Westporter — and 2 others, 60 years later.

The  Saturday Evening Post cover of April 22, 1950 shows fans in the Polo Grounds — the New York Giants’ fabled home. Their hands stretch skyward, reaching for a foul ball.

It’s an iconic scene — a classic, feel-good, All-American illustration.

Saturday Evening Post better

But — according to a letter written in 2000 by illustrator Austin Briggs’ son — there’s a bit of back story.

The son — who shares his father’s name — says that his father’s painting showed Fannie Drain, a black woman who worked for his family and was loved by all.

“When the Giants were playing, she and my father — whose studio was at home –would follow the radio broadcasts avidly and vocally; her pride and pleasure in being included in the cover painting were deep,” Briggs wrote.

The Post editors told Briggs he would have to paint her out of the picture.

“He broke the painting, on a gesso panel, over his knee and walked out,” the son said. “The financial sacrifice was great, but he never regretted his act or repented his fury.”

Stevan Dohanos

Stevan Dohanos

The illustration was redone by Stevan Dohanos, a noted Westport illustrator and frequent Saturday Evening Post contributor. He used many of the same models, but replaced Fannie Drain (near the bottom left) with a large white man wearing a handkerchief.

Dohanos’ original hung in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York. And that was that — until last year.

Sarah Wunsch — a 1965 Staples High School grad, now a staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts — chatted about the story with classmate Tom Allen, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame President’s Advisory Board.

She wrote the Hall, in Cooperstown. She soon received a reply from Erik Strohl, director of exhibitions and collections in Cooperstown.

“I was unaware of the details behind this painting and I find the story very fascinating,” he said.

The details truly provide a picture of life in the 1950s, which may seem foreign to us now. I tell our visitors all the time that we can learn much about ourselves as Americans through the lens of baseball, and this painting surely fits that bill.

He promised to find a way to add the information to the exhibit. He said it would “provide a much wider context on the full story of the painting, including what it teaches us about race relations, both in baseball and in popular magazines.”