Way Back When ... Martin Luther King Jr. came to Westport
In May 1964, Temple Israel’s congregation hosted the Baptist minister and civil rights leader the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
King came to Westport on the invitation of Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein and spoke to an audience of over 600 people, noting, “It is possible to stand up to an unjust system without hate.”
Under Rubenstein’s leadership during the 1960s, Temple Israel hosted other activists, including writer James Baldwin, becoming a forum for aggressive social progress.
Just a month after King visited Westport, the Mississippi Project began. This was a voter registration effort by civil rights groups. During the next few months, which became known as “Freedom Summer,” volunteers and activists were beaten and jailed.
Two white students, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and an African-American student, James Chaney, disappeared. Their beaten bodies were not found for six weeks. Westport artist Tracy Sugarman was in Mississippi bearing witness to the movement. He said later, “We knew immediately that they’d been killed.”
That June, King went to St. Augustine, Fla., in response to citywide violence following attempts to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter there. King was arrested and wrote a letter from jail to his friend Rabbi Israel Dresner of New Jersey, asking him to recruit others to the aid the movement.
Dresner arrived in St. Augustine with 16 fellow rabbis, including Westport’s Rubenstein. All were arrested on June 18, 1964. From jail, they penned a letter titled “Why We Went,” detailing what they had seen and calling upon fellow Jews to support the civil rights movement.
“These words were first written at 3:00am, in the sweltering heat of a sleepless night, by the light of the one naked bulb hanging in the corridor outside our small cell. ... We do not underestimate what yet remains to be done. ... In the battle against racism what we have participated here is only a small skirmish. But the total effect of all such demonstrations has created a Revolution.”
Visitors to the Westport museum can view Rubenstein’s tallit, or prayer shawl, on display through June.
For more information visit westporthistory.org. Westport Museum for History & Culture has been a cultural and educational organization dedicated to preserving, presenting and celebrating the history of Westport since its founding in 1889.