Tag Archives: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

Tom Kretsch: A Letter To Dr. King

Just before Martin Luther King Day, longtime Westport resident and superb photographer Tom Kretsch and his wife Sandi joined a trip to the South, sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Fairfield County.

The group — which included other Westporters, and Shirah Lpson Sklar (a Staples graduate, the new senior rabbi at Norwalk’s Temple Shalom) — traveled to places crucial to the civil rights movement, like Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. 

When Tom returned, he wrote a “Letter to Dr. King.” Today he shares it — and several powerful photos he took — with “06880” readers.

We want to let you know what an incredible journey we have just completed.  We think it would make you happy to know 50 of us had traveled on this powerful Civil Rights Mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Fairfield County, following in your footsteps on the roads you traveled for justice.

It is like we stepped back in time, reliving so much of the history that was part of our early 20s. Sadly, I remember being in the Peace Corps in South America and learning of your assassination on BBC Radio. I could hardly believe this had happened to you, shortly after the same fate came to Robert Kennedy. Sandi remembered all the lessons she had taught her kindergarten students about your efforts to create a more just world, and the struggle for freedom for all.

(Photo/Tom Kretsch)

Our journey started at your favorite church: Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta. We attended Sunday Service, with the Reverend Raphael Warnock preaching. We heard the choir’s soulful voices, saw him hold up little babies who had come to service and heard how he so skillfully weaved some of the political discourse into the meaning of the gospel of Luke, even touching on the recent injury to Damar Hamlin and the teamwork of the responders.

Senator Reverent Raphael Warnock (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

His message, like yours, was that life should be more about the “us” and less about the “me.”  You would have loved how enthusiastic the worshipers were as they responded to his messages. He is now also Senator Warnock from Georgia. I don’t think you could have imagined that happening, but oh how sweet it is!

Your old friend Andrew Young spoke with us outside the church. You remember how hard he worked with you for civil rights, and became US Ambassador to the United Nations under President Carter. We couldn’t believe we were able to meet with this radiant man, who like yourself worked so hard for freedom for all.

Andrew Young (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

On to Montgomery our bus rolled. Under gray skies we pulled into the grounds of the Equal Justice Memorial to Peace and Justice. You would be so proud of the work of Bryan Stevenson, who initiated this idea. He has dedicated his life to working to exonerate people unjustly imprisoned for crimes they did not commit. He is our hero!

This memorial he helped create is one of the most provocative things we have ever seen. It is dedicated to the 4,000 or more African Americans lynched during the Jim Crow Era. It is hard to comprehend the depravity of people and what went on during this time in our nation’s history. For Bryan to have envisioned this place is remarkable. Walking through and seeing the iron cross-like stations from different counties in the South, with the names of people who were hanged, tears the heart. Every American should visit this shrine.

The Legacy Museum tracing the history of slavery in our country was equally powerful. As we entered we saw ocean water moving against glass, and imagined a slave ship traveling from Africa. The next station shows clay-like sculptures of slaves who didn’t make it, resting on the bottom of the sea.

The exhibits are interactive. We talked to slaves, and found out what life was really like in those dreadful times, in truthful, honest depictions of some of our history.

Legacy Slave Museum (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

At the end of the museum is a beautiful gallery of African American art, and a hall with 800 photographs of African Americans who made contributions to this country. Some we never knew about.

We needed more time at each place, but the journey continued the next morning with a visit to the Rosa Parks Museum. What a brave woman! Her actions began the Montgomery Bus Boycott that lasted 380 days. What hardships it put upon the African American community. They organized ingenious ways of getting to work, around the obstacles created by authorities to negate their strike. Your support, Martin, kept their eye on the prize.

Rosa Parks statue. (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

We headed to Selma, taking the route that the famous march to Montgomery followed, on a lonely road where the marchers stopped to rest. We learned about the only white woman, Viola Liuzzo from Detroit, a mother of 5, who came down to help and was killed by the Klan while transporting protestors to the airport.

Here we met Lynda Blackmon Lowery, who at age 15 participated in the marches and strikes for equal rights. We learned how children did much of the marching, as adults feared being arrested and losing their jobs. Hearing words from people who lived through these experiences is so powerful.

Linda Blackmon Lowery (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

Then the 50 of us stood by the Edmund Pettus Bridge, were led in prayer by several of the rabbis that made the trip, and walked across this iconic structure. There were no troopers with billy clubs, barking dogs, fire hoses, tear gas canasters and people waving Confederate flags.

Edmund Pettus Bridge (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

We were honored to make the walk in memory of those who did, including the late John Lewis. After Bloody Sunday they reassembled with you and made the 50-mile journey to Montgomery, which precipitated the passing of the Voting Rights Act.

I am sure you remember your friend Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods who we met in Kelly Ingram Park, next to the 16th Street Baptist Church. There those 4 little girls were killed one Sunday, when the Klu Klux Klan planted dynamite in the church.

The Bishop, a spry 89-year-old, was full of joy and spirit. He talked, danced, sang and filled our hearts with his memories of those turbulent days in Birmingham, maybe the most violent city in the struggle for justice. It was called Bombingham for good reasons.

Bishop Calvin Wallace Woods (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

So Martin, here we are at the end of this moving journey of reliving our history. We learned so much.

Where do we go from here?  This group of people who traveled together became so energized by this experience. Such a joyful gathering of people who came to learn, reflect, and commit to being part of this journey of making a difference.

There is the big picture of supporting causes that are committed to finding justice for all. Bryan Stevenson said it best: “The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

There are still so many injustices in health, housing, job opportunities, and making sure that everyone has the right to vote. In our own state of Connecticut we see the challenges of creating a fair and equitable education for all, by creating more diverse schools in the inner cities and allowing more students of color to enter suburban schools.

There is the more personal one-on-one commitment we can all make: listening to others who might be different, finding out their needs, and perhaps impacting their life in a positive way. One small step for justice and understanding.

Through the images and information collected on this journey we can hopefully share this story of our nation’s history with students in nearby communities. Your birthday is a holiday now, but your work should continue throughout the year.

I hope you enjoyed our letter, Martin. We have been deeply nourished by this journey. I will share it with others. Perhaps it will light a spark and encourage them to make a similar journey of learning, reflecting and growing.

Sincerely,
Tom and Sandi Kretsch

Close-up at the Legacy Museum. (Photo/Tom Kretsch)

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)

MLK

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.

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

MLK Celebration: A Week Of Introspection And Inspiration

This year more than ever, it’s important to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

And — now more than ever — it’s vital to do it on more than just Martin Luther King Day.

Layla F. Saad

The town is already gearing up for next Sunday’s conversation with Layla F. Saad, author of the compelling “Me and White Supremacy.” The livestreamed event is set for 12 noon. (Click here to register. Click here for more details.)

But that’s just the start of a week-long series of virtual events. For the first time, Westport is expanding its MLK celebrations beyond a single keynote.

Rev. Alison J. Patton of Saugatuck Congregational Church says, “In recent years we have shifted the focus of the Dr. King celebration from a remembrance of his groundbreaking leadership to an occasion to deepen our understanding of the continuing impact of systemic racism. There’s a need to equip ourselves to more effectively unmask and dismantle racism in our lives and community.”

Saad’s talk will be followed 2 days later by a panel discussion on “Me and White Supremacy: What Can I Do Next?”

The January 19 session (7 p.m.) focuses on the process outlined in Saad’s best-selling workbook, a 28-day challenge “to combat racism, change the world and become a good ancestor.” Click here to register.

The week culminates with “New Works/New Voices,” an evening of original monologues in response to Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” (Thursday, January 21, 7 p.m.). It’s a world premiere, with Gracy Brown, Tenisi Davis, Tamika Pettway and Terrence Riggins sharing new works exploring themes surrounding racial justice. Click here to register.

Monologue authors ready for world premiere.

There’s more next month. February will include many opportunities for “profound personal engagement on the impact of white supremacy and privilege,” says TEAM Westport’s Bernicestine McLeod Bailey. Details will be announced soon.

TEAM Westport is co-sponsoring the Martin Luther King celebration, with the Westport Libraray, Westport Country Playhouse, Westport Weston Interfaith Council and Westport Weston Interfaith Clergy.

Westport, Weston Clergy: “Let Us Not Sleep Through This Revolution

On this Independence Day, the Westport/Weston Clergy Association says:

In recent weeks many of us have come to a greater understanding of the constant, oppressive, life-threatening, structural racism endured by those among us who are black and brown.

Many of our ancestors endured a history of injustice and murder. Our black and brown siblings continue to face injustice and murder on a daily basis. Many of us thought we knew and understood. We have come to realize that we have so much more to understand, particularly those among us who have benefited from a system that favors whiteness.

In 1964 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Westport at the invitation of Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein. In his address at Temple Israel he said, “One of the great liabilities of life is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and yet they fail to develop the new attitudes… that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

Let us not sleep through this revolution.

This 1964 bnewspaper clipping shows Rev. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

Let us learn to oppose racism and bigotry with all our hearts, all our souls, all our might.

Let us become anti-racists, actively dismantling structures of inequality and injustice.

Let us one day look our children in the eye and tell them honestly that we did our part to create a world more righteous than the one we inherited.

Let each of our congregations commit to action, so that black people will no longer be, in the words of Rev. Dr. Bernard Wilson of Norfield Congregational Church in Weston, “treated as second-class citizens in the nation of our birth.”

It is not up to us to complete the work of repairing the world. But neither can we absent ourselves from it.

Rabbi Rubenstein, Rev. King And Jail

Last month’s 50th anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act drew well-deserved attention.

But the stroke of President Johnson’s pen hardly ended discrimination. In fact, just 2 months later — in June, 1964 — the largest mass arrest of rabbis ever took place, in St. Augustine, Florida.

The group — led by Rev. Martin Luther King — was striving to end segregation in the nation’s oldest city. Just a month earlier, he had spoken at Westport’s Temple Israel.

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein

Now the synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, returned the favor. He traveled south, and was part of the group that landed in jail.

Next month, St. Augustine commemorates the 50th anniversary of that event. There is  a panel discussion with 9 of the rabbis who are still alive; a reading of the letter the rabbis wrote and signed that night in the St. Johns County jail; a march to the church where the rabbis heard rousing calls to action by Rev. King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Rev. Andrew Young; lunch cooked by the woman who cooked for Rev. King 50 years ago; a tour of the jail where the rabbis were incarcerated and fed baby food (overlooking the spot where black protesters were held, surrounded by barbed wire with no food at all), and a curated display in the city’s visitor center that reviews the 450-year-old history of blacks in North America.

Rabbi Rubenstein died in 1990. But his son Jonathan has been invited to attend.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rev. Martin Luther King and Rev. Ralph Abernathy in the St. Johns County jail.

Rabbi Merrill Shapiro told him, “The story of your father’s role in the largest mass arrest of rabbis in US history 50 years ago is legend here in St. Augustine …. (Some consider this) the most ‘undertold’ story in the history of the Jewish community of North America.”

That story was told in a recent edition of the Southern Jewish Historical Society newsletter.

Half a century ago, as St. Augustine prepared to celebrate its 400th anniversary — and Congress debated the Civil Rights Act — shopkeepers proudly displayed Ku Klux Klan robes.

King asked the Central Conference of American Rabbis for help. 16 rabbis — including Rubenstein — and Reform Judaism’s social action director, heeded the call.

The group joined members of St. Paul’s AME Church, attempting to integrate a motel swimming pool and lunch counter.

Monson Motor Lodge manager James Brock poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

The Monson Motor Lodge manager poured muriatic acid into the segregated pool, trying to get a group of rabbis and blacks to leave.

In jail — by the light of 1 bulb burning outside their cell — the rabbis wrote a letter.

We realized that injustice in St. Augustine, as anywhere else, diminishes the humanity of each of us. We came as Jews who remember the millions of faceless people who stood quietly, watching the smoke rise from Hitler’s crematoria. We came became we know that, second only to silence, the greatest danger to man is loss of faith in man’s capacity to act….

We came to stand with our brothers, and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.

The newsletter notes that while plenty has changed in St. Augustine in 50 years, much has not. There is only 1 black firefighter, and no police officer, city commissioner or school board member. Barriers continue to keep African Americans from voting.

Rev. Martin Luther King is dead. So is Rabbi Rubenstein. But — as the newsletter notes — “the voices of those arrested can still be heard.”

Next month — 50 years after those voices were raised — St. Augustine celebrates them.

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled "Why We Went."

The rabbis composed this letter in jail. It is titled “Why We Went.”