Editorial: From summers in tobacco fields to challenging Hoover, MLK spent memorable days in CT

This artwork by M. Ryder refers to MLK Day and the commemoration of the life and impact of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

This artwork by M. Ryder refers to MLK Day and the commemoration of the life and impact of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

M. Ryder

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s aura is so iconic that it has become too easy to shorthand his legacy.

“I have a dream …”

The March on Washington.

His assassination.

The fullness of King’s life, though, is in the details of his story. A deeper dig reveals bookmarks of events that took place in Connecticut that deserve revisiting on the holiday that bears King’s name.

King first saw life outside of the segregated South when he left his native George at age 15 in 1944 to work a summer job on tobacco fields in Simsbury.

Looking back years later, King observed, “after that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.”

King would return to Connecticut as his fame grew. In June 1963, baseball trailblazer Jackie Robinson hosted his first backyard jazz concert (featuring Dizzy Gillespie) in Stamford to raise money for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was headed by King. That August, Robinson stood with King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington.

Events such as the civil rights march led to King winning the Nobel Peace Prize the following year. Before traveling to Oslo, Norway, to collect the honor, King returned to Connecticut to speak at Stamford High School that Nov. 30. Prizes and support did not erase the resistance he routinely faced. A bomb threat was called in while the Stamford school was filling with an audience of 2,000.

King also took the opportunity during a nearby news conference in Stamford to invite FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to meet with him. The move was bold. Hoover famously deemed King “the most notorious liar in the country” after the two men clashed over how the FBI handled riots in the South.

History has since been kinder to King.

King did not use the Stamford news conference to fuel the fire. He told reporters he would not further comment on the issue until he talked to Hoover. The two met in the immediate wake of the Connecticut event. King described the awkward summit as “quite amicable.”

But it’s the words King spoke in Stamford that December night that still reverberate.

This master of rhetoric didn’t merely offer sound bites. He made specific calls for an end to segregation in housing and racial profiling and spoke of the resistance to having Black students in schools that were predominately white.

The words still sting almost 60 years later because we know such issues have not been vanquished.

 “There is nothing more dangerous than to build a society where a segment of that society feels they have no stake in that society,” MLK said that night.

Fortunately, a society is not built like a house. It is in a constant state of repair but can be expanded despite fissures in the foundation.

“We know that brotherhood is not here yet. Look around,” Dr. King said on that night in 1964. “We have a long way to go. Even in Connecticut.”

Look around in 2023. On this MLK Day, we should celebrate our strides, but must not ignore the many challenges on the horizon.