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Artist, Westporter recounts Civil Rights movement

Published 7:25 pm, Thursday, February 10, 2011

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  • Artist Tracy Sugarman poses for a photo in his studio in Westport on Tuesday, February 8, 2011. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg / Connecticut Post
    Artist Tracy Sugarman poses for a photo in his studio in Westport on Tuesday, February 8, 2011. Photo: Lindsay Niegelberg

 

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Last month, renowned Westport artist and human rights activist Tracy Sugarman traveled to Wabash College in Indiana to speak to members of its Malcolm X Institute for Black Studies. "I found them so well read and so curious about American history," Sugarman said. "I kept thinking that there must be oases like this all over the country. There are good people everywhere."

Despite having spent years on the front lines of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta, documenting the nonviolent struggle for basic rights through his detailed and compelling illustrations, Sugarman spoke optimistically about America's future to several hundred members of the Westport Y's Women.

Contrasting the culture in Mississippi in the mid 1960s with its present day politics, Sugarman pointed out that the state now has more black legislators than any other state in the country. With a characteristic smile on his face and an air of congeniality and openness, Sugarman earnestly stated: "I feel as bullish about Mississippi as I do about America."

Sugarman said his entry to the civil rights movement was motivated by Dr. Martin Luther King's visit to Westport in 1964. King was invited to speak to the Westport community by Temple Israel's spiritual leader Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein, who was known around town as a champion for social justice issues.

"Martin Luther King changed my life," said Sugarman, a World War II veteran. "He caught my attention for his courage and nonviolent struggle against this American apartheid."

Although the audience was interested in learning about Sugarman's upcoming novel, "Nobody Said Amen," his first published fiction book set during the civil rights era in the deep South, Sugarman also offered a poignant insight into what it was like to be ensconced in a battlefield that, in some ways, was similar to the one he fought in the European theater.

Answering King's call, Sugarman joined 1,000 young volunteers, mostly college students involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. As they gathered for an orientation in Ohio, before moving to Mississippi, where they would live with black families, Sugarman said that they were all keenly aware of their mission's inherent danger. "We knew that if we got into trouble, there was no one to call," he said.

Moreover, like Sugarman, most of the volunteers had never been in the South before. "Many, like me, had never met a black man, full size," he said.

However, with his family's backing, Sugarman temporarily left his work as a commercial artist and illustrator to travel to Mississippi for Freedom Summer. While there, he made more than 100 drawings of the ongoing, nonviolent struggle unraveling around him amid the deep-rooted racism prevalent in the southern communities.

Sugarman said he and other activists couldn't count on white southerners for support, so they relied on the generosity of people who supported the movement, such as those in his hometown. "Our Westport community contributed $30,000 during Freedom Summer," he said.

When his tenure in Mississippi concluded, Sugarman returned to his Westport home "exhilarated." His son, Richard, who was a freshman at Brown when he went south, said that he, too, wanted to work on building freedom schools for blacks in poor, rural communities.

Sugarman gave his son permission, and in 1965 Richard worked on building a freedom school in Arkansas. The building he worked on was attacked every night, set on fire and Richard was beaten, Sugarman recounted. However, like his father, Richard believed in the cause and he didn't return home.

"It's heartbreaking when you know what your children are getting into," Sugarman said. "I'm very proud of him."

Sugarman feels strongly about young people today, too. He said that the SNCC college volunteers also never complained or returned to their affluent home up North, even when threatened and physically beaten.

"These were upper middle-class white kids living in black homes and making $6 a day chopping cotton," he said. "They stuck it out. They went to bed scared. ... I have enormous appreciation for what young people could be and I think we sell them short too often. They want to be motivated and when they're motivated, they're just terrific."

Sugarman spent some time reading a chapter from "Nobody Said Amen."

"My wife Gloria said she's married to the oldest `first' novelist in Westport," he said.

The couple first met 37 years ago at party held at the home of Janet and Alan Nevas. "He had just gotten back from the south and was talking about it," Gloria recalled. "I was so intrigued and thought that I had to get to know this person better."

Although they were both married to other people, the two couples became close friends. Gloria and Tracy also joined a local chapter of the World Affairs Center, which she described as "one of the oldest civil rights and human rights" organizations. Its office was located in downtown Westport. She was the president, and he was its vice president.

Today, Sugarman continues to travel around the country talking about his experiences.

"It's important for young people to understand that the people who got involved back then were not 9 feet tall and Cary Grant types," Sugarman said.