Tag Archives: Rabbi Byron Rubenstein

MLK

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 Harper (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

MLK

This story ran last year. Several readers asked me to republish it today. Here it is.

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 Harper (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

MLK

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 Harper (left) presents Coretta Scott King with civil rights-themed wood carvings.

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

Census And Sensibility

The release this week of Westport’s census data — showing, among other things, that just 1.2% of our town identifies as “black or African American” — got me thinking.

While that percentage has long been paltry — it translates to 305 men, women and children, up just 13 from 2000 — Westport does have a history of involvement in the broad civil rights issues of the day.  Whenever that day was.

During the abolitionist movement, houses served as stops on the Underground Railroad.  At least one — on Weston Road, across from the present-day Methodist Church — still stands.  A once-hidden room — accessible from the outside — attests to its role in hiding runaway slaves.  (Though Connecticut was a free state, fugitives could still be captured and returned.)

Abraham Lincoln allegedly visited here during the Civil War.

That home was part of Morris Ketchum’s sprawling Hockanum Hill estate.  He frequently hosted Salmon P. Chase, as Abraham Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary sought funding for the Civil War.

Though no official record exists, Lincoln allegedly stayed at Hockanum Hill while president too.  The estate — on Cross Highway, near the foot of Roseville Road — offered an out-of-the-way respite on secret financing trips north.  The current deed refers to the “Lincoln room,” and a letter supposedly exists in which the president thanked Ketchum for his hospitality.

A century later, in the early days of the modern civil rights movement, Herman and Gladys Steinkraus lived on South Compo.  He was president of both Bridgeport Brass and the US Chamber of Commerce.  The couple were avid supporters of the United Nations, and often invited African ambassadors to Westport.  It was the 1st time some had ever been inside an American home.  Not all the Steinkraus’ neighbors were pleased.

Around that time, Ernestine White was a beloved music teacher at Bedford Junior High School.  A pupil invited her to his bar mitzvah.  A few tongues wagged — but the invitation was in keeping with the tenor of the times.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King definitely came to Westport.

Temple Israel’s rabbi, Byron T. Rubenstein, was deeply involved in the civil rights struggle.  Rev. Martin Luther King spoke at the temple in 1964.  A month later, Rubenstein and King were both arrested in the south, at a nonviolent march.  Rubenstein and others were instrumental in organizing Freedom Rides from Westport, challenging laws that enforced segregation.

Tracy Sugarman was one of several Westporters to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Summer.  He knew the murdered civil rights workers Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, and developed deep friendships with leaders like Julian Bond and Fannie Lou Hamer.  Sugarman hosted them, and many others, in his Westport home.

The 1960s were a time of civil rights ferment, and many Westporters were active in the cause.  Both the Intercommunity Camp — bringing together youngsters from Westport, Weston, Norwalk and Bridgeport — and the school district’s Project Concern, serving dozens of Bridgeport elementary, junior high and high school students, were direct results of local activism.

The team that is TEAM Westport

For nearly a decade TEAM Westport — the first selectman’s committee charged with achieving and celebrating multiculturalism — has worked to make this a more welcoming place for all minorities.  African Americans have taken a leading role.  TEAM Westport has organized trips to the slave ship replica Amistad; led school panels, talkbacks at the Westport Country Playhouse, and community conversations; partnered with schools, religious organizations and the library, and worked in dozens of other ways, large and small, to reinforce awareness of diversity issues and concerns.

Of course there have been less visible, lower-key events too.  In 1960, Sammy Davis Jr. married Mia Britt.  At the time, 31 states outlawed interracial marriage.  Connecticut was not one of them — and, legend has it, the couple honeymooned at a home off Wilton Road.

These are just a few of the connections Westport has made, over many years, with civil rights issues.  We’re not a racial melting pot — but neither are we immune from the world outside our borders.  It was Westport’s involvement, in fact, that brought many families here in the 1950s and ’60s, when they could have chosen many other places to live.

Has Westport changed since then?  Are these issues still important, and are Westporters as involved?  If so, how?  If not, why — and what’s taken their place?  Click “Comments,” to share your diverse (and diversity) thoughts.

MLK

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.

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.