Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech reverberated across the nation, but years earlier, more subtle words offer insight into the little-known moments that may have fundamentally shaped his path as a civil rights leader.
King wrote those letters from Connecticut. Historians believe his experiences in Simsbury as a teenager helped shape King’s world view.
“Dear Mother: I received your letter and was very glad to hear from you. I am doing fine and still having a nice time. Tell everybody at home hello.”
Penned on June 11, 1944, those are the opening lines in the first of five letters that King sent home to his parents in Georgia that summer. He had joined other aspiring Morehouse College students in working on a tobacco farm to help pay for tuition. That was the Cullman Brothers Farm in Simsbury.
“Our work is very easy we have to get up at 6:00 every day and be in the bed at 10:00. I have a job in the Kicthin so I get better food than any of the boys and more I get as much as I want. Tell daddy hello…” King writes in the same letter.
“He was 15-years-old. So he talked about being away from home for the first time. He talked about work on the farm,” Richard Curtiss, social studies department supervisor at Simsbury High School and Simsbury Free Library trustee, said. “He talked also about getting shoes sent up because he wanted better shoes. He also wanted them to send some food up!”
In a letter dated June 18, 1944, King writes: “Mother dear I want you to send me some fried chikens and rolls it will not be so much.”
“Plus, when he was 15, and he was here, he was actually waiting to hear if he had been admitted into college,” Curtiss said. “He was asking in the letters, if they had heard anything."
“P.S. Don’t forget to see Mr Conell about the test as soon as possible,” King writes to his mother in the June 11 letter.
It is believed that King spent two summers in Simsbury, in 1944 and 1947. All five letters are from the first summer.
“I think they just show us an early version of him,” Dr. Clayborne Carson, founding director of The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said. “I think that that's fascinating to see that he didn't expect the life that he was going to lead later, he was he was just a precocious teenager.”
These letters are included in The King Papers Project, a collection of King’s most significant correspondence and rare personal documents accumulated over several years. Carson, who is compiling the documents, said beyond the anecdotes of a teen away from home for the first time, King’s letters illuminate rare and personal moments.
“Like a veil, lifted from his face. He had kind of assumed the South was the way the world was. And this was his first real encounter with a different kind of world,” Carson said.
While the state was not free of racism, King could not help but compare Connecticut to the segregated South.
"I never though that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest resturant in Hardford. And we went to the largest shows there,” King writes on June 18.
"He could not believe how African Americans had the freedom to come and go,” William Flippin, pastor of Greater Piney Grove Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, said. “He was amazed that Blacks didn't have to go to the balcony to go to a theater, they could eat in restaurants, they didn't have to sit in the back of the bus. And so those were experiences that informed his later life."
Another turning point: King’s experience attending a de-segregated church in Simsbury.
“Negroes and whites go to the same church,” he wrote to his mother.
Even as a teenager, he delivered sermons to fellow students.
"In the application for his seminary school, he mentioned his summer here in 1944, when he was at the dorm leading religious discussions as the turning point in his life, when it came to pursuing that, that going forward,” Curtiss said. “So we think there was an important moment in his development that happened here in Simsbury."
In downtown Simsbury, where King once walked, a memorial created by local students now stands as tribute to his time in Connecticut.
King even referenced his time in Simsbury later in life, while giving a speech in Hartford in 1959.
“I joined several of my fellow students in coming to Connecticut to work for the summer on one of the tobacco farms, and it was called the Cullman Brothers Farm in Simsbury,” he said.
Years later, Dr. King described the train ride home to Georgia.
“After that summer in Connecticut, it was a bitter feeling going back to segregation,” he said. “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 capitol in order to continue the trip to Atlanta.”
Pastor Flippin, who knows the King family in Atlanta, believes these early experiences played a role in King’s calls for equality.
"We're not going to stay in the North where it’s comfortable, they still said, we're going back to the South to make a difference. And that's exactly what they did,” he said.
From a young man in Connecticut, to the call to service, historians say there were several factors that drove Dr. King to becoming the civil rights leader that he was, but one of those influential moments was during those teenage years in Simsbury.
"It's time that perhaps the people of Connecticut know that they had a part to play in the development of the modern Civil Rights Movement,” Flippin said. “It may be minor, there may not have been any marches. It might not have been any rallies. But certainly, there was some formative, theological, philosophical leanings that Dr. King learned by working in those fields in Connecticut."