The Hartford Courant January 17, 2011 Shawn R. Beals
MLK Day Events Include A New Documentary On Connecticut's Influence In King's Life
Two summers spent working in Simsbury helped shape the life of a teenage Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1940s. Nearly 43 years after King's death, state officials and residents marked the anniversary of his birth, and commemorated those visits.
Simsbury High School students showed a new, 15-minute documentary on the effect that Connecticut had on King's life.
The film was a yearlong project following the story of King's experiences in the state, where he would have his first taste of life without segregation and find the inspiration to become a minister.
"He has influenced the world in so many ways, and to know this little town had such a profound impact on his life and therefore the entire world is amazing," said John Conard-Malley, a Simsbury High School senior who worked on the documentary.
The film was featured at the 25th annual Connecticut Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission ceremony, held at the state Capitol. It was also screened twice in Simsbury at Eno Memorial Hall, where King attended shows while living in town.
The vast differences between Simsbury and his home state of Georgia helped shape King's growth into an inspirational and powerful adult.
"He saw those opportunities for him that he didn't have down south," said Nicole Byer, a high school junior who worked on the documentary.
King worked at Cullman Bros. tobacco farms in Simsbury as a laborer and cafeteria worker beginning in 1944 when he was 15 and again in 1947, when he was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He attended churches in Hartford and Simsbury, and by all accounts was astounded by the racially integrated restaurants and buses.
In a letter to his mother in June of 1944, King wrote: "Yesterday we didn't work so we went to Hartford. We really had a nice time there. I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere, but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford.''
"It was a bitter feeling going back to segregation," King wrote in another letter to his mother.
The film pieces together King's stays in Connecticut through five letters — four to his mother and one to his father — as well as newspaper articles and first-hand accounts of area residents who remember King and the other Morehouse students who worked in the tobacco fields.
He lived in a dorm set aside for summer laborers, waking up about 6 a.m. to eat grits and sausage before going under the netting to work in the shade tobacco fields by 7:30 a.m. for his $4 daily pay. King became a religious leader in the group, and his leadership qualities were evident even as a teenager.
Byer said she was proud that she and her fellow students could promote an important part of the town's history.
"A lot of Simsbury actually thought it was just a legend" that King spent two summers in town, Byer said.
Monday marked the 25th year of national recognition of King's birthday. Events throughout the state included a wide-ranging speech Monday evening by civil rights activist Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, congressman and U.N. ambassador.
The celebration, sponsored by the Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative, was held at the Glastonbury High School auditorium.
Young, who was executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s and a partner with King during the early days of the civil rights struggle, was with King in Memphis in 1968 when the civil rights leader was assassinated.
Young, who was greeted by a standing ovation from several hundred in attendance, also spoke of his time in Connecticut 60 years ago, when he was a student at the Hartford Seminary.
"I was stranded in Hartford on my own," said Young. "It was the best experience of my life."
Young recounted working as a dishwasher and a janitor while going to school and said that, like King's experience in the tobacco fields, his experience taught him an appreciation for the common working man.
"He always referred back to the summers he spent in the tobacco fields," Young said. "If it hadn't been for Benjamin Mays putting him in the tobacco fields we might never have gotten the Martin Luther King we got."
Young said the experiences of his wife and King's wife, who both grew up in Marion, Ala., also helped shape the two mens' commitment to a non-violent civil rights movement, and added that other countries facing similar issues now and in the future should emulate his friend's teachings.
"Martin Luther King was a prophet for the 20th century and visionary for the 21st century," Young said.
In Monday morning's ceremony at the Capitol, state officials marked the day by drawing attention to the work that still needs to be done to improve racial equality.
"Today we honor him with speeches and monuments, but we must do more … justice and harmony, this is the monument Dr. King would have wanted most of all," said Dennis J. King, chairman of the Connecticut Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Commission.
Officials, including Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Lt Gov. Nancy Wyman, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. Chris Murphy, said challenges still exist in the state and the country, including economic and healthcare inequalities along racial lines.
"Every year we go a little bit further, we accomplish something," Wyman said. "But we have so much more to do."
Three New Haven leaders, William Kilpatrick, longtime director of the New Haven Parking Authority; Leroy Williams, a longtime coach and school administrator; and Tomas Reyes, a six-term president of the New Haven board of aldermen, were presented with Martin Luther King Jr. Awards for their work promoting social justice.
Monday morning, dozens of people, including Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra, gathered at the Central Baptist Church in downtown Hartford for the second annual MLK Poor People's Rally and Fair. Donors brought coats, boots and other items for poor and homeless people. The event was organized by Samuel R. Saylor, founder of Hope Point Charities, Inc.
Malloy indirectly referred to the Jan. 8 shootings in Tucson, Ariz., in which six people were killed and 13 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
"At a moment when our nation is reflecting upon its collective voice and examining the discourse and actions we use to express our freedoms, the commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday is especially appropriate.
"Dr. King's teachings remind us that progress, however slow or unwilling, is made every day. It is incumbent upon each and every one of us to identify injustice when we see it, work to improve it, and continue on the road ahead."
Also Monday morning, a few blocks away at the Connecticut Convention Center, was the annual Martin Luther King Scholarship Breakfast, which raised money to help African-American female high school seniors to attend college. The event, co-sponsored by United Technologies Corp., has awarded more than $150,000 in scholarships for the Hartford Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority since it began in 1985.