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Activists celebrate memorial, acknowledge work is far from done

By Ted Glanzer

Staff Writer

Earl Exum, the president of the West Hartford African American Social & Cultural Organization, highly encourages people to visit the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial that was unveiled in Simsbury on Jan. 18.

“Absolutely I would encourage to visit the memorial,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “I am a huge advocate for Black history in general. It has been washed out of American history. It is American history. … Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Connecticut is a piece of history that you want to have captured.”

Similarly, he has an equally powerful message to deliver, one that’s driven home by the protests and rallies sparked over the summer by the killing of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people as well as the sight of an angry mob of primarily white insurrectionists storming the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6: the memorial is merely part of the journey, not a destination.

“When I learned of Martin Luther King Jr. as a child and a student, I was taught Martin Luther King came, fought for civil rights and conquered discrimination, and it was over and everyone had the same opportunities. 

“Then I went to college, and it was suggested we still have a long way to go. There is a lot of work to be done. So when you visit the memorial, it’s important to remember that there still is a lot of work ahead.”

Exum noted the challenges facing today’s activists are more nuanced than the ones that King took on before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

“The problem now is it’s more subtle and very systemic: housing, education, the judicial system,” Exum said. “It’s all unfortunately subtle and systemic. The weight [of discrimination] is put in early, the disadvantages are put in early.”

The intent isn’t to minimize the memorial – five etched glass panels standing proudly outside the Simsbury Free Library – as its construction is an impressive, if not incredible, achievement unto itself.

Deacon Arthur Miller, a civil rights activist and deacon at St. Mary’s Church in Simsbury, alluded to the dueling themes during the ceremony on Jan. 18.

“It was back in 1963 and I marched and at that time I never believed that in 60 years a day like this would come,” he said. A day where we are in a time of some of the [echoes of] ’60s, where there is a pall of uncertainty and discord that is being brought upon our great nation. And yet there is a rising up, a cadre of young people who are embracing the idea that peace must and can be realized – that Dr. King’s almighty dream can be awakened and a reality. And this is an incredible display of what Dr. King can and should and will be.”

About 10 years ago, a group of 16 Simsbury High students, under the guidance of Simsbury High History Department Chairman Richard Curtiss and Simsbury Free Library, created a 14-minute documentary that chronicles King’s time spent in Simsbury working the tobacco fields while he was a student at Morehouse College. 

The two summers,1944 and 1947, that King spent in the Greater Hartford area appear to have had a lasting impression on his life, showing the possibility of white people and Black people co-existing more freely.

King, during that time, wrote of the profound impact of attending church with white people as well as having to move to a segregated car on the train in Washington, D.C., on his way back to Georgia.

Following the making of the documentary, the Simsbury students formed a group, MLK in CT, in which successive students joined and continued to document and share King’s history in Connecticut as well has his message of peace and civil rights. The student group eventually hit upon the idea of the memorial, designed by Peter McLean, an artist and professor of fine arts at the Hartford Art School/University of Hartford. 

The memorial cost $150,000, funded through grants, corporate donations and through the students selling red bricks that have been laid in front of the memorial.

Tara Willerup, vice chairwoman of the Simsbury Free Library’s Board of Trustees, continues to drive home and marvel that the overwhelming amount of work that has gone into MLK in CT has been done by students, about 50 total throughout the years.

“The kids did the documentary. The documentary got national acclaim and then that blew everybody’s mind. … Kids designed the memorial,” she said. 

Past and present students led the fundraising, which Willerup said was “hard and very rigorous.”  

“They worked really hard,” she said in a telephone interview.

About 11 kids currently belong to MLK in CT, several of whom are siblings of prior members. The memorial is also a testament to that proud legacy, which was on full display as a number of alums were in attendance and unveiled memorial panels, including Maggie and Taylor Willerup, and John Conard-Malley.

“A few families have had multiple students on the committee – including three or four kids who are currently in our group,” Tara Willerup said. “For some, it’s a family affair that they had their kids invest themselves in the project.”

Simsbury High student Joao Galafassi, a member of MLK in CT, said the memorial incorporates “a lot of symbolism” of King’s life.

“Each panel represents an aspect of Dr. King’s life: family history, journey to Simsbury, time spent in Simsbury and the importance of it to him, leaving Simsbury and returning to a segregated way of life, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s life and subsequent legacy,” Galafassi said.

The panels appear to float unsupported, Tara Willerup said, as MLK’s ideas were not meant to be contained by walls and were available to everyone.”

The memorial is still a work in progress, however; the group has its collective eye on purchasing a bench made of granite from King’s home state of Georgia.

“When we came up with the idea for the monument, we wanted to make sure it was something the public could interact with and had a lot of meaning,” Galafassi said. “We wanted it to be a tool of education.”

Indeed, it was out in the fields in Simsbury, King wrote, that “he realized his call to become a minister, feeling an inescapable urge to serve society and a sense of responsibility which he could not escape,” Galafassi said. “We all feel a connection with MLK – he was about our age when he walked down the same streets and he too was thinking about what path he would take into the future.”

Simsbury High student Ethan Hamlin, also a member of MLK in CT, said the memorial’s construction was “invigorating” as well as “surreal.”

“When I first saw the pillars going up in the center of town to be laid, I was taken aback,” he said. “It didn’t feel real. I’m really excited for everyone else to experience the memorial.”

Curtiss, the teacher and adviser, said he’s equally thrilled with the project coming to fruition.

“I’m as excited as anyone,” he said. “We always knew if we kept working hard and telling our story, we would get to this point. However, 10 years is a long time. There were times along the way when we felt this was too big a project to take on or it cost too much money to complete. 

“But all of us believed in the mission and, in fact, it has arrived. It’s a great feeling. We’re excited we can share it with a whole new group of people to see the film or know about the project that was done in 2010. A whole new audience can benefit from it. It’s really rewarding.”

Curtiss also credited Tara Willerup’s “perseverance and hard work.”

“It’s the reason we are here today,” he said. “She doesn’t get enough credit for it. She’s been keeping the groups together and getting the message out.”

And King’s message these many years later still resonates, Exum said. He points out how discouraging it is to see a Confederate flag being waved at the U.S. Capitol in the opening days of 2021, but also notes the history of civil rights is one of two steps forward, and one step back.

But Exum noted Kamala Harris is the first Black person, first woman and first graduate from a historically Black college to be vice president. Georgia elected its first Black U.S. senator and its first Jewish senator, he said.

“We’ve made that progress,” he said. “I’m encouraged by those things.” VL


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