Illuminating Moments; Civil Rights Leaders Stopped Here in New Haven

By Shelton, Jim | New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), February 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

Illuminating Moments; Civil Rights Leaders Stopped Here in New Haven


Shelton, Jim, New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)


Sometimes history comes to visit. This is particularly true in Greater New Haven, where world leaders, pivotal figures and difference makers of all stripes have come calling for hundreds of years. Likewise, there are the big events that originate here, from the British invasion of New Haven in 1779 to the Bobby Seale trial in 1970.

The history of the civil rights movement is no different.

Indeed, many of the most iconic personalities in the long struggle for equality have passed through New Haven. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke here, as did Malcolm X; Frederick Douglass bolstered troops here; Sojourner Truth journeyed here after changing her name; Thurgood Marshall stopped here to give his definition of black power.

As we embark on Black History Month for 2007, it's worth noting that these luminaries and many others didn't just make history in places such as Birmingham, Alabama, and Washington, D.C. They also made some noise in the Elm City.

Of course, some of them are well known locally, from the Amistad revolt in 1839 to the fact that New Haven was the hometown of Judge Constance Baker Motley and the birthplace of Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

But there are other local connections to civil rights history.

What follows is just a partial list of some of those moments.

FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1818-1895)

Douglass, a former slave who became a towering historical figure and champion of equal rights for African-Americans, made at least two notable local appearances. One was at New Haven's Varick A.M.E. Zion Church on Dixwell Avenue. The other was an address Douglass gave to African-American soldiers of the 29th Regiment, Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, in Fair Haven Jan. 29, 1864. "You are pioneers of the liberty of your race," Douglass told them. "With the United States cap on your head, the United States eagle on your belt, the United States musket on your shoulder, not all the powers of darkness can prevent you from becoming American citizens. And not for yourselves alone are you marshaled -- you are pioneers -- on you depends the destiny of 4 million of the colored race in this country. If you rise and flourish, we shall rise and flourish. If you win freedom and citizenship, we shall share your freedom and citizenship."

SOJOURNER TRUTH (ca 1797-1883)

Born into slavery in Hurley, N.Y., under the name Isabella, Truth would become one of the leading abolitionist voices of her era. She changed her name to Sojourner Truth in 1843 and preached for a time in Long Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In 1850, she dictated her life story, "The Narrative of Sojourner Truth." It included a reference to time spent in the Elm City: "Landing at Bridgeport, she again resumed her travels toward the northeast, lecturing some, and working some, to get wherewith to pay tribute to Caesar, as she called it; and in this manner she presently came to the city of New Haven, where she found many meetings, which she attended -- at some of which, she was allowed to express her views freely, and without reservation. She also called meetings expressly to give herself an opportunity to be heard; and found in the city many true friends of Jesus, as she judged, with whom she held communion of spirit, having no preference for one sect more than another, but being well satisfied with all who gave her evidence of having known or loved the saviour."

THE REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. (1929-1968)

Considered by many to be the preeminent civil rights leader of the 20th century, as well as one of the most influential Americans of all time, King preached a nonviolent brand of protest that sparked a wave of legislative change. His assassination marked a time of incredible turmoil for the country, yet today King's birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. He came to Greater New Haven several times. In 1961, King spoke to more than 1,000 people gathered at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, imploring people of all races to "learn to live together as brothers or they will perish together as fools. …

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