Editorial: A Connecticut hero

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

Ceremonies commemorating the extraordinary legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. arguably could start in Connecticut’s capital. Before the celebrated civil rights leader (whose birthday is observed Monday as a holiday) shared his historic dream for the nation in Washington, he shared it in Hartford.

In 1959, as part of a University of Hartford lecture series, King reviewed the history of African Americans, from slavery, through emancipation and segregation, to the mid-1950s and the U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional. “We stand today on the threshold of the most creative and constructive period of our nation’s history,” he said.

King’s leadership role in the 1955-56 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott gained him national attention. His “I Have a Dream” oratory made history more than four years after the “Future of Integration” speech he gave in Hartford. King, then 30, spoke about what government, religious leaders and others should do in the fight for integration and civil rights. He called for quick and decisive action. “The hour is late, the clock of destiny is ticking out.” He shared his nonviolent resistance philosophy. “Violence can only bring temporary victory, never permanent peace.”

Before he began studies at Morehouse College in Atlanta, King, at age 15, traveled north with other students for summer jobs, working the fields of a tobacco farm in Simsbury as a way to pay for college. Life outside the segregated South was an eye-opening journey for them.

“I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we … ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford. And we went to the largest shows there,” Dr. King wrote to his mother. He also wrote of going to the same church as white people.

“After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation,” King wrote in his autobiography. “I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate restrooms, partly because the separate was always unequal, and partly because the very idea of separation did something to my sense of dignity and self-respect.”

His time in this state helped persuade him to become a minister and influenced his views about fighting segregation. The civil rights movement was regarded as just a regional issue to many back then. King corrected that delusion. Civil rights became a vital human rights issue all over this country (and the world), and later the law of this land.

—G. Bartlett