Today, as we pause to consider the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is fitting that we look back on his efforts and sacrifices to advance equality and justice for all Americans. In the words of President Donald J. Trump’s proclamation of the King holiday last January, “We have also made great strides as a Nation, but we acknowledge that more work must be done.”
Since his assassination more than half a century ago, King has perhaps taken on the nature of a national saint, who is brought out once a year for some ceremonies. Easy to forget that he was just another man, who worked and sometimes despaired. He not only dreamed of a better future, but did more than most to bring that future about.
And we can take a small measure of pride, here in Connecticut, that the time he spent in our state, in the summers of 1944 and 1947, may have helped open his eyes to the dream of a country of equal opportunity for all.
He spent those two summers with a group of his fellow students at Morehouse College in Atlanta, by working shade-grown tobacco for Cullman Bros. in Simsbury to defray some of their college expenses. It was tough, hot work, as we read in an account by the Simsbury Historical Society, because the students spent long days under the gauze shades that held the humidity in but blocked out any breeze.
But King was a keen observer and would later remark in his autobiography about his experience in the non-segregated North:
“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 [racially restricted] car at the nation’s capital in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.”
In Simsbury and Hartford, King found he could attend a church or a movie, trade at a drug store, or eat in a restaurant — unlike back home. “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere …” he wrote to his mother in June 1944.
We should probably take no more than a small amount of pride in this, but it seems that his experience in Connecticut as a young man helped open the eyes of this great American to the wider world and the possibility of a better America.
And this is a better America, thanks in part to King, even though we agree with the president that “more work must be done.”