Honoring Dr. King

I’m honoring Martin Luther King Jr. today by reflecting on his life. It remains an enduring regret that we have no one of his stature to continue the struggle against injustice, poverty, and war.

Two pieces of suggested reading:

John Christoffersen’s “King, a Ga. college teen working on Conn. tobacco farm, inspired by taste of desegregated life” is much better than its headline, as it brings to national attention knowledge that is fairly common around Connecticut. At least I thought it was common knowledge until I began reading in and around the article.

Dr. King was one of innumerable young black southern college students who spent summers earning money planting and harvesting Connecticut’s shade grown tobacco. Most of the fields and drying sheds are gone now, though a few can be glimpsed along the connector road from Interstate 91 to Bradley International Airport. The young people (local and imported) who worked weeding, harvesting, and tying the broad leaves that would become cigar wrappers are well into their fifties and beyond now.The people who now work in the remaining fields mostly come from the islands and have given the Hartford area a culture of reggae and jerk chicken. (Compare Dr. King’s experience with the treatment of the West Indians at a Hartford bar.)

The town of Simsbury, where Dr. King spent his time, has transformed from a tiny manufacturing and farming community into a leafy suburb of mansions and mini-mansions with a median annual household income of more than $100,000. Then as now, though, the town was overwhelmingly white, as African Americans comprise about one percent of the population. Nevertheless Dr. King felt he had a warm reception everywhere he went. And what most impressed him was that he could go anywhere. There were no Jim Crow cars on transportation, no “whites only” drinking fountains, and most significantly, no segregated church. This part of the story will soon be better known. Christoffersen reports that a group of high school students have researched Dr. King’s brief stay and produced a film about it. I am thrilled that the racial integration he experienced in our little state helped to move him to the first steps along the path that led him to become an icon.

More fascinating is Clarence B. Jones’s “On Martin Luther King Day, remembering the first draft of ‘I Have a Dream.’” I did not know that Dr. King had so much input from so many people on the speech, which he then abandoned after Mahalia Jackson asked him to talk about the dream. And it is truly galvanizing to realize that when he abandoned the text he produced some of the most magnificent prose in the English language. Professor Jones called it capturing “lightning in a bottle.” Of course, he is correct that no one else could have delivered those words as Dr. King did.

Professor Jones’s account on “Fresh Air” adds breadth and depth to his relationship with Dr. King, including his initial rocky encounters with the young King. The professor’s ability to mimic both Dr. King and his (female) secretary is truly wonderful.

But it makes me sad that the man who secured very basic rights for so many continues to be a lightning rod for the sort of viciousness expressed in some of the comments on The Root. Have we learned nothing from his life and struggle and death? Please keep Dr. King’s dream alive.

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