MLK and Hartford

Martin Luther King Jr., just 30 years old but already recognized nationally as a leader of the civil rights movement, walked onto the stage of Bushnell Memorial Hall on May 7, 1959.

Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958, the year before his speech in Hartford.
Martin Luther King Jr. being arrested in Montgomery, Alabama in 1958, the year before his speech in Hartford. Police accused him of loitering outside the courtroom where his friend and fellow activist, Ralph Abernathy, had been appearing for a trial. (Associated Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

In a speech entitled, “The Future of Integration,” King pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling five years earlier that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional:

“As a result of that decision, we stand today on the threshold of the most creative and constructive period of our nation’s history. To put it in Biblical terms, we’ve broken loose from the Egypt of slavery, we’ve moved through the wilderness of ‘separate but equal,’ and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration.”

Since King’s talk was part of lecture series organized by the University of Hartford (itself just two years old at the time), the University has kept these audio excerpts from that night on its website.

King began his talk by recalling how he came to Connecticut in the summer of 1944 to pick tobacco in Simsbury. It was his first time outside the segregated South, and the way he was treated–especially on his weekend trips into Hartford–was far different than what he experienced at home. In a letter to his mother at the time, he wrote: “I never thought that a person of my race could eat anywhere but we ate in one of the finest restaurants in Hartford. And we went to the largest shows there.” (For more on King’s time in Connecticut, see this 2014 Associated Press article.)

The Bushnell wasn’t King’s only stop in Hartford that day in 1959. He also spoke at an interdenominational brown-bag lunch at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church and met with editors of the University of Hartford’s student newspaper. The editors included Reid MacCluggage, who went on to become managing editor of the Hartford Courant, publisher and editor of The Day of New London, and a U of H regent.

“I came away from that day knowing I had been in the presence of a great man,” MacCluggage recalled for the University in 2006, adding that “to many of us in the 1950s, the civil rights movement was only a Southern issue. Dr. King corrected that impression. Civil rights was a human issue.”

When the Hartford kids invaded the beaches

Cover of the book "Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline"Few talk about Ned Coll today, but in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s he was constantly in the news. Raised in a middle-class, Irish-American household in Hartford, he quit his insurance job in 1964 to start the Revitalization Corps, a nonprofit whose volunteers provided tutoring, employment training, and other help to residents of the city’s largely African-American North End. The Corps also staged public confrontations to expose racism in Connecticut–not just the blatant kind, but the subtle racism of people whom Coll dubbed “armchair liberals.”

That’s why, starting in 1971, Coll and company began drawing attention to Connecticut’s beaches, many of which were effectively off-limits to people of color. There was no outright prohibition, but since the beaches ran through predominantly white and wealthy communities, it was easy to keep “outsiders” out; private beaches were restricted to members only, and public ones were restricted to town residents or visitors with enough money to pay sky-high parking fees. Coll thought the beaches should be open to all, and his tactic for making that point was simple: He simply loaded North End kids on buses, brought them to a beach, and challenged authorities to do something about it. The kids had fun, and Coll attracted a lot of publicity. But it took a lawsuit filed by a beach jogger in the 1990s to loosen some of the restrictions on beach access, though Coll testified on his behalf.

The full story of Coll’s campaign is told in a new book, “Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline,” by Andrew Karhl, an associate professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia. In an interview with, which has a great overview of the book, Karhl sums up Coll’s outlook this way:

“He understood, on an instinctual level, that the problem of racism was a problem of white people, and white people needed to solve it. So he targeted these very liberal but passive communities that, on the one hand, talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk, and so often actually made the problems worse.”

For more on Coll and his legacy, check out this CT Viewpoints column by Tom Condon, who began his long career as a Hartford Courant reporter, columnist, and editor by covering the beach “invasions.”

“Have things changed since Coll began his journey?” Condon asks. “Somewhat.”