Editor's Note: This article was originally published in 2012.
Martin Luther King Jr. could hardly believe his eyes when he left the segregated South as a teenage college student to work on a tobacco farm in Simbury, Connecticut and now, some local high school students are getting help to honor the civil rights leader through a special memorial.
"On our way here we saw some things I had never anticipated to see," King wrote his father in June 1944. "After we passed Washington there was no discrimination at all. The white people here are very nice. We go to any place we want to and sit any where we want to."
The slain civil rights leader, whose birthday is observed on Monday as a federal holiday, spent that summer working in a tobacco field in the Hartford suburb of Simsbury. That experience would influence his decision to become a minister and heighten his resentment of segregation.
Last year, local students worked on a documentary and those students were inspired to honor their former resident and leader of the Civil Rights movement with a special memorial to Dr. King.
The memorial will be built with the support of a $20,000 grant from the Cigna Foundation.
The Cigna Foundation is also working with the Simsbury Public School system to create a scholarship that honors the life and legacy of Dr. King. The annual scholarship, called the Cigna Service to Community Award, will provide $1,000 to benefit an accomplished college-bound Simsbury High School student who has overcome personal challenges and is providing impactful service to the community at large.
"It's clear that this little town, it made a huge impact on his life," said John Conard-Malley, a Simsbury High School senior who did a documentary with other students on King's experiences in Connecticut. "It's possibly the biggest thing, one of the most important things, people don't know about Martin Luther King's life."
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Until then, King was thinking of other professions such as becoming a lawyer, Conard-Malley said. But after his fellow Morehouse College students at the tobacco farm elected him their religious leader, he decided to become a minister.
In a letter to his mother three days after he wrote his father, King marveled over a trip he took to Hartford.
"I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford," King wrote. "And we went to the largest shows there."
He wrote a week earlier of going to the same church in Simsbury as white people. His new calling as a religious leader was emerging, too.
"I have to speak on some text every Sunday to 107 boys. We really have good meetings," he wrote.
In a speech in Hartford in 1959, King recalled how hot it was working on the tobacco field and how he looked forward to relaxing on weekends in Hartford.
Clayborne Carson, a history professor and director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said King's time in Connecticut played a role in his decision to become a minister and in influencing his views about segregation. He said shortly before King came to Connecticut that summer, a bus driver ordered him to give up his seat for a white passenger on the way to Atlanta.
"These experiences came fairly close to each other," Carson said. "I think the two things together sharpened his sense of resentment about segregation in the South."