Way Back When ... 1964

On May 22, 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited Westport for Shabbat to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Temple Israel. Members of the community as well as the congregation turned out in large numbers to hear him speak. This was after President Kennedy’s assassination and civil unrest was sweeping the country.

Martin Luther King had been to Connecticut before in the summer of 1946 when he was a sophomore in college. He was part of a student group who came north to work the tobacco fields of the Connecticut valley. The pay was better than the South and young King wanted to see what the northern states were all about. He had read that there were no segregated facilities as there were in the south, and that blacks could share the same washrooms and drink from the same water fountains. That summer for the first time he was able to enter a restaurant and sit and eat where ever he wanted.

By the time Dr. King came to Westport in 1964, the civil right struggles in Montgomery and Birmingham were behind him. Two years earlier at the famous March on Washington he told the 200,000 people in front of the Lincoln Memorial, “ I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live at the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.” Four months after his visit to Westport, he would go to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize for Peace.

That May evening in Westport, Martin Luther King compared the country to Rip Van Winkle. “The most striking thing is not that he slept twenty years, but that he slept through a revolution. People fail to see a revolution taking place in our world today.” Dr. King then offered his philosophy of non-violence, which he described as the Negro’s most potent weapon. “We must stand up vigorously and yet not stoop to hatred.” That night Dr. King had dinner with Temple Israel’s Rabbi, Byron T. Rubenstein and his wife Sue. The following month they would meet again under different circumstances.

In June Rabbi Rubenstein was attending a Rabbis conference in Atlantic City when he received a telegram from Dr. King urging him to send representation to a civil rights demonstration in St. Augustine, Florida. Westport’s Rabbi Rubenstein was one of the sixteen who went. When the Rabbis arrived in St. Augustine, they were taken to a black church where demonstrators were meeting for a march on the Old Slave Market. All those who attended were given careful instructions on how to react to the vicious attacks they might encounter. Non-violence was the rule.

That night they marched and sang hymns such as “ We shall Overcome.” Fortunately there was no violence, however, the next morning they marched again, were arrested and spent the night in the St. John’s County Jail. “It was in jail that I came to know the greatness of Dr. King,” Rabbi Rubenstein later recalled. “ While in jail I never heard a word of hate or bitterness from that man, only words of faith, joy, and determination.”

Margaret Mazer for the Westport Historical Society. For information on membership and upcoming programs please visit. Westporthistory.org. Mazer can be reached at 203-571-8704.