I wrote this for the paper a few years ago, but it seems like a good day to run it again:
The scene of Martin Luther King, Jr standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, addressing a vast crowd alongside the Reflecting Pool, is locked in the national imagination.
In that scene, he is model of eloquence and courage, a polished speaker delivering an oration that will thunder through time.
But King wasn’t always a civil rights giant whose words resonated around the world.
There was a time in the mid-1940s when King was just another teenager picking tobacco in the Farmington Valley.
But historians say his two summers in Connecticut may have played a pivotal role in propelling King along a path to prominence.
For it was on his trips to Connecticut that he experienced a world that didn’t mandate segregation, where he could sit, worship and eat with white people without the specter of Jim Crow hanging over all.
And it was during his second summer in Simsbury that King decided he would become a preacher.
“The white people here are very nice,” the 15-year-old King wrote to his father in 1944, “We go to any place we want to and sit anywhere we want to.”
To his mother, King wrote, “I am doing fine and still having a nice time. We went to church Sunday in Simsbury and we were the only Negroes there. Negroes and whites go to the same church.”
King later wrote that he went to Simsbury just before going to Morehouse College “and worked for a whole summer on a tobacco farm to earn a little school money to supplement what my parents were doing.”
“One Sunday, we went to church in Simsbury, and we were the only Negroes there,” he wrote. “On Sunday mornings I was the religious leader and spoke on any text I wanted to 107 boys.”
To his mother that summer, King wrote that he’d had a day off so he went into Hartford with friends and “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. And we went to the largest shows there,” he wrote.
King returned to pick tobacco again in the summer of 1947, when he “led religious service for his fellow student workers at a tobacco farm” in Simsbury, according to Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr Papers Project at Stanford University.
Carson said Friday that “about all we know” of King’s early forays to Connecticut comes from his letters.
It happened so long ago that few if any people have any memory of King from that summer, he said, and he would look skeptically at claims by others to recall much of anything about King in those days.
After all, he said, King was just a teenage boy at the time with “no real strong connections” to the area.
Other than the summers picking tobacco, Carson said, probably the only other times that King went to Connecticut were to give a speech or two. Connecticut Public Television’s Connecticut Journal determined recently that King spoke at least a dozen times at Yale, Wesleyan and in Bridgeport in the years after the Birmingham bus boycott.
King looked back on the first trip to Connecticut as a key time in his life.
He later wrote, in a passage published in his Autobiography a few years ago, “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation.
“It was hard to understand why I could ride wherever I pleased on the train from New York to Washington and then had to change to a Jim Crow car at the nation's capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.
“The first time that I was seated behind a curtain in a dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood. I could never adjust to the separate waiting rooms, separate eating places, separate rest rooms, 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,” King wrote.
Carson wrote in a piece about King’s decision to become a minister that “a crucial period” in the young man’s decision-making “came during the summer of 1947” when he was in Simsbury.
“After several weeks of deliberation, he telephoned his mother from Simsbury to tell her of his intention to become a minister,” Carson wrote.
“My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular," King wrote in a seminary application later. “It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life.”
“Moreover, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry,” he wrote.
“I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become,” King wrote.
He could not have imagined how great his responsibility would become or dreamed of well he would handle the challenge.
Connecticut, though far removed from the great trials of King’s life, was the third state in the country to set aside King’s birthday as a holiday, back in 1974, helping set the course for the creation of a national holiday to honor the civil rights leader
Copyright 2008. All rights reserved.
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