Following the Path

ECHO underway, posted Monday January 17, 2011

See images of Connecticut River Valley tobacco production at Connecticut History Illustrated.

The steps from one floor to the next of Boston University’s School of Theology were deeply grooved when I attended that school some decades ago. On a daily basis I hurried past the monumental sculpture dedicated to another student, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., on my way to this class or that coffee date. But it was when I carried myself up those well-worn steps of the School of Theology that brought most clearly to my heart and to my mind the man who was Dr. King. I began to imagine that, at times, and like me, he hurried to meet a professor, waved at a friend, and certainly buried his head in books. He graduated from BU before I was born. I remembered his assassination—that year my parents took my brothers and me to Gettysburg. In my junior year at BU I read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. That led me to read more about civil rights and nonviolence in the writings of Mohandas Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. It helped make me an historian.

As a teenager, Martin Luther King, Jr., worked in the Cullman Brothers, Inc., tobacco fields of Simsbury to earn money to attend Morehouse College. The labor shortage caused by World War II brought young African American college students north to work through harvest. On June 11, 1944, the fifteen-year-old King wrote to his mother, “We went to church Sunday in Simsbury and we were the only negro’s [sic] there[.]  Negroes and whites go [to] the same church. Sunday morning we had church in the boa[r]d house and I lead [sic] it…. I have to speak on some text every Sunday to 107 boys we really have good meetings.”

A little over a week later, Mrs. King received a letter that her son had visited Hartford.

“Yesterday we didn’t work so we went to Hardford we really had a nice time there. I never though[t] that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we [strikeout illegible] ate in one of the finest rest[a]urant[s] in Hardford.”

Recalling that summer years later, Dr. King wrote:

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 dining car, I felt as if the curtain had been dropped on my selfhood.

We build monuments and people stand still in their shadows to honor the memorialized. We make pilgrimages to historic houses and battlefields. Yet there are paths  we walk everyday that have been trod by others—famous and ordinary—from whom we may learn, and gain strength, and better ourselves and our communities through simple acts of service. A mother’s shuttling from refrigerator to range as she prepares the family supper. A teacher pacing in front of a blackboard, tutoring students at night. Volunteer drivers delivering people to church, temple, synagogue, and mosque, or to the shopping center, or to the polls on election day.

A young African American man walked freely in Simsbury, and in the decades that followed he was joined by many more–to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in August 1963, from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama, in March 1965, and in his last steps, in Memphis, Tennessee, in April 1968.

The dormitory that housed Morehouse College students was purposely burned in 1984 as a training exercise for firemen. The Cullman Brothers tobacco curing sheds were recently razed to make way for housing.

For more on Dr. King ‘s experiences in Simsbury, please visit the Simsbury Historical Society website. Posted Monday January 17, 2011

The image for this post may be viewed at Connecticut History Online.