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Dr. King’s early experience of equality in Connecticut

CORNWALL — Historian and activist Jeremy Brecher told the little-known story of Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience picking tobacco in Connecticut in a Zoom talk Monday, Jan. 17, sponsored by the Cornwall Library. (There were 106 people on the Zoom.)

Brecher explained that Connecticut had a thriving tobacco industry, specializing in “shade grown” or “Sumatran” tobacco used for cigar wrappers.

But in the years leading up to World War I, as European immigrant workers returned home and the economy shifted into war production, Connecticut’s tobacco farmers faced a serious labor shortage.

Initially the growers tried recruiting regionally, with little success.

The growers then turned to the Urban League, which was involved in helping African-Americans from the South to move North and find employment.

The growers and the Urban League reached an agreement that covered wages and conditions, and included inspections by the League, which helped recruit students from what are now known as “historically Black colleges and universities,” including King’s alma mater, Morehouse University.

The practice diminished during the Great Depression but picked up again as the U.S. geared up for World War II.

King was among 100 or so Morehouse students who came to Simsbury, Conn., in 1944 to pick tobacco.

Brecher said it was King’s first experience outside of the segregated South, and a part of King’s biography that was largely neglected until the publication of King’s letters in 1992.

King wrote to his parents about his amazement at the difference between Connecticut and the South.

He wrote his father that, “I never thought a person of my race could eat anywhere.”

Brecher noted that King could not have known about the troublesome history of race relations in Connecticut, and about the more subtle forms of discrimination that existed in 1944 in housing, education, and employment.

(Brecher also observed that Connecticut was one of six states that had a substantial number of people involved in what is known as “The Second Klan,” a revival of the Ku Klux Klan that was primarily focused on Jews and Catholic immigrants. In the mid 1920s, the Second Klan had 23 chapters with 23,000 members in Connecticut.)

A state commission found in the 1940s that there were just 16 Black stenographers or typists in the entire state, and zero Black sales clerks in major department stores in Connecticut in 1943.

As King worked in Simsbury in the summer of 1944, 50 miles away at Bradley Field, Black servicemen were subject to a strictly segregated working and living environment.

Brecher said discrimination continues today in wages and housing, and noted that most of Connecticut’s African-Americans live in 15 of the state’s 169 municipalities, which he chalked up to “exclusionary zoning” and state housing practices.

Returning to King, Brecher said King wrote of his “bitter feeling” on the train back to Atlanta from Connecticut. After sitting wherever he pleased, he was required to move to a segregated car at Washington, D.C.

The Connecticut experience stayed with King, Brecher said, and quoted King:

“We must learn to live together as brothers, or perish together as fools.”

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