Young King savored job in unsegregated Conn.

January 22, 1991|By The Hartford Courant

HARTFORD,CONN. — HARTFORD, Conn. -- Beneath the cocoonlike tents covering the tobacco fields of Connecticut's Farmington Valley, a teen-age Martin Luther King Jr. cultivated the dream of racial justice and harmony that he later preached to America.

In Connecticut during the summer of 1944, King for the first time savored life in a non-segregated society, visiting churches, restaurants and movie theaters that were not closed to him because of the color of his skin.

In the recreation room of a tobacco workers' bunkhouse in Simsbury, Conn., King, then 15, led fellow tobacco workers in worship. A prominent historian of the civil rights movement thinks that experience helped direct King toward the ministry.

Five letters that King wrote that summer to his parents in Atlanta -- letters never before made available to scholars -- show that his time in New England was an important chapter in his life.

Riding a train through New York City toward Connecticut, and moving freely through non-segregated Hartford, King marveled in a letter to his father about things he "never anticipated to see."

Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University, says that the letters are a thrilling historical find and indicate that the Connecticut experience helped King decide to become a minister.

Owned by King's sister, Christine King Farris, the letters are to be published next year in the first volume of the 14-volume King papers project. Because of copyright concerns, Mr. Carson is not able to release the letters now.

Mr. Carson, a historian specializing in the nation's civil rights movement, says that the Connecticut letters are a more important historical find than the news that broke in November, when the Wall Street Journal disclosed that the King papers staff had found apparent plagiarism in King's scholarly work.

King was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., and would have been 62 years old last Tuesday.

King traveled north during the summers of 1944 and 1947 to pick tobacco in a program arranged by Morehouse College and Cullman Brothers Inc., now Culbro Corp. of New York.

Morehouse, an elite black men's college in Atlanta, administered the program for high school and college students from the South who wanted to earn money to defray tuition costs or help support their families.

King worked under the sweltering canvas tobacco tents in Simsbury and Granby, hoeing the soil, planting tobacco and sitting in the dirt to pick tobacco leaves from the bottoms of mature plants. He earned about $50 a week.

William G. Pickens, now a professor at Morehouse, came north to pick tobacco and work as a cook in a bunkhouse for eight summers between 1943 and 1950. Drawn together by their common roots in Atlanta, Pickens and King became friends in the summer of 1944.

The two teen-agers, Pickens said recently, shared an ecstatic feeling of freedom in Connecticut. King and Pickens relished being able to walk in white neighborhoods, or to talk to a white woman, without worrying about being challenged by the police, arrested, or worse.

"We'd say, 'We're going to God's country,' and that meant going to the Connecticut Valley, to New England," said Mr. Pickens, who later settled in Hartford and taught high school English until 1970.

Mr. Pickens recalled King's talking about his excitement at escaping segregation and the humiliation of having to use "colored only" water fountains, bathrooms, railroad cars and restaurants under a kind of apartheid system in the South commonly known as Jim Crow.

"It was a bitter feeling going back to segregation," King told a New York Post reporter in 1957 about his feelings as he left Connecticut and returned to the South.

"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."

Mr. Pickens and other former workers concede that they probably had an idealized view of Hartford because of the harshness of Southern racism then. But the apparently unrestricted access to restaurants and theaters in Hartford presented an exciting new world to the tobacco workers from the South.

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