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Column By Michael Kaneb

Connecticut had a profound impact on the early development of Martin Luther King Jr. as he transitioned from college student, to world renowned civil rights activist, to Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Ironically, the experience was triggered by King picking tobacco leaves in the fertile fields of the Connecticut River Valley.

In 1944, Martin Luther King Jr. was 15 years old, an early-enrollment freshman at Morehouse College in Atlanta. When the spring semester ended and summer break began, he and some other students from Morehouse boarded a train north in pursuit of summer employment, to work on tobacco farms in Connecticut.

The Meadowood property in Simsbury is home to the farm where MLK Jr. lived and worked for two summers. Photograph by Steve Burns. Cover image of Dr. King by Horace Cort of the Associated Press in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.

That summer of 1944 made a powerful impact on Martin. He had spent his whole life in the south, in the land of “Jim Crow” segregation. This journey north was the first time he could see what life was like without that level of overt discrimination. In Connecticut, racial segregation was far less severe, at least on the surface, and in certain settings, there was no segregation at all. This was a revelation to King, providing a seed that would help to grow his bold dream of a world without racial prejudice.

The first thing that inspired King was the train ride from Atlanta to Connecticut. All along his journey south of the Mason Dixon line, Martin and his Morehouse classmates were excluded from sitting in rail cars specially designated for white passengers. Then, once they reached Washington DC, the train cars were no longer divided by race. In the coming days, Martin wrote about this experience in a letter to his parents. Seeing this discriminatory policy disappear at the crossing of an invisible line was a profound, amazing experience for him.

Clippings from the The Hartford Courant Magazine in 1942 reported about the Black tobacco workers in Connecticut. Photograph by Yehyun Kim for the New York Times

Living and working at the Meadowood tobacco farm in Simsbury involved tough manual labor from early morning to past sundown. But there were more experiences that inspired the young man to imagine. At some point, a local church choir director heard King and some of his fellows singing spiritual songs, and was so impressed by them, he invited them to sing at their church, the First Church of Christ in Simsbury. King wrote to his parents recalling that he and his friends were the only black people in the building, and this was the first time King had ever attended a church service where black and white people prayed together.

On days off, Martin and his Morehouse lads would go into town, to Simsbury, Farmington, or Hartford. On one occasion, they dined at “one of the finest restaurants in Hartford” and afterwards attended a show at one of Hartford’s biggest theaters. This kind of socialization and intermingling of races was an entirely new experience for these young men. It gave them a direct awareness that extreme segregation wasn’t the norm everywhere, and it didn’t need to be the way society was structured.

King at Morehouse College in 1948. AP file photograph.

After tasting the tolerance and inclusion he found in Connecticut, going back to the south was a harsh reminder of the realities of institutional racism there. “After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation,” he later wrote. “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’s experience in Connecticut went largely unnoticed until 2011. In a New York Times article entitled, “Martin Luther King in Connecticut: Closer to a Promised Land”, published in July 2016, they documented the moment Connecticut and the country learned of King’s experience in the Nutmeg State.

“In 2011, when Richard Curtiss, a history teacher at Simsbury High School, and a group of students in his Advanced Placement course in United States history produced a 15-minute documentary about King’s time in the town, drawing on letters he wrote home and interviews with local residents who remembered the Morehouse workers. The CBS Evening News reported on the students’ effort.”

Now there is a MLK in CT Memorial in Simsbury.

Spending time in Connecticut helped Martin Luther King Jr. envision a future with less racism. But what would this mighty champion of social justice and peace say to us now, in light of the pervasive inequality and injustice in Connecticut?

In a special presentation for the Cornwall Library, Connecticut historian and author Jeremy Brecher used the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day to talk about King’s time in Connecticut, and what this hopeful chapter in his life means in relation to the ongoing adversity people with dark skin face in Connecticut today.

For example, Brecher reported that in the United States black workers get paid 17% lower wages on average, while in Connecticut, black workers get paid 32% less on average.

In Connecticut the poverty rate is 28.3 percent for black children and 31.3 percent for Hispanic or Latino children, and 5.5 percent for white children. The rate of infant deaths per 1,000 births is 12.69 for black children, 7.73 for Hispanic children and 4.53 for white children. These are just a few fragments of data which indicate the larger situation for people with dark skin in Connecticut. From health to housing, education to employment, there are harmful disparities in resources and opportunities.

If Martin Luther King Jr. could be here with us in Connecticut today, would it give us the boost of motivation we need to dream bigger and do better to improve racial equity? Would it make us push harder to dismantle oppressive institutions and grow the “beloved community” he called for? Then let us remember the steps he walked here. Let us imagine that he is with us in Connecticut today. Let us make him real in our lives, so we can draw strength from him, as we write the next chapter of our history, continuing on to victory in this “long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” •

(Michael Kaneb is the co-founder of the New England Peace Center in Torrington, Connecticut)