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Tuesday, February 7, 2012

WHS MLK Program Gives Kids a Glimpse at Civil Rights Era

WHS MLK Program Gives Kids a Glimpse at Civil Rights Era
By Mike Lauterborn
(for Westport News)

Westport, CT -- Times they were a-changing quickly in the 1960s, as anti-war and Civil Rights movements converged, sending protestors into the streets and driving public sit-downs and clashes. In a special Martin Luther King Day program Monday at the Westport Historical Society, kids got a chance to understand that era a bit better, through crafts, discussion and a noted local speaker.

“Today is about art and fun mixed together with lessons on tolerance,” said educator Miss Elizabeth, the program leader. Beginning mid-morning in the basement workshop area at the 25 Avery Place facility, and with the help of several teen volunteers, the instructor first took children through a craft activity.

Participants – 14 in all – were asked to create black & white line drawings of a bouquet of flowers.  When the drawings were completed, Miss Elizabeth asked the group, “What would make our flower pictures better?” Sun and leaves were among the responses, but “color”, suggested by five-year-old Olivia Morelli, was the answer she was seeking. “It’s more interesting to have lots of different colors, right?” said Elizabeth, injecting a lesson into the activity.

The group set about colorizing their pictures with watercolor paints, then pasted in cutouts of hands – their own that they had traced onto different pieces of colored construction paper. Then they wrote in phrases like “Peace”, “Flower Power” and a noted protest statement Elizabeth suggested: “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” In the end, they had created sunny compositions with symbols of racial unity and positive messages.

As the children worked, humming along to Beatles music, Miss Elizabeth touched on what the era was like from her perspective, growing up in the South. “People with different colored skin didn’t have the same rights as us,” she said. “When I was a little girl, people of different color had to drink from different water fountains.”

Civil rights pioneers like Rosa Parks were also discussed, as well as the meaning of the Day. “Who knows why we have today off?” asked Elizabeth. “It’s Martin Luther King’s Birthday,” said one child, while another added, “He was a kind man that didn’t like the rules that were mean.”

Perhaps the most qualified person to speak about Dr. King, however, was the day’s special guest, Westport author, activist and artist Tracey Sugarman. Now in his 80s, the noted local saw King speak in Westport in 1963. “Rabbi Rubinstein at Temple Israel went down South to work with him and help him desegregate a facility,” said Sugarman. “He was impressed with King and invited him up here to speak at the congregation. I went to hear him, and it changed my life.”

Sugarman traveled to the South, to Mississippi, with students, to work as a volunteer helping to get black Americans registered to vote. “I saw how people lived. It was shocking,” he said. “A black family that took me in couldn’t go to the public pool or library, and had no voting rights. It was unspeakable, very deprived.”

Sugarman began doing drawings of what was happening. These, and his observations, were ultimately incorporated in a book, “Stranger at the Gates”, and helped publicize what was happening in the South.

“I’ve gone back to follow up,” said Sugarman. “It was a remarkable time. I saw that non-violence was effective.” 

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