Martin Luther King Jr. in Connecticut, a nonprofit organization led by Simsbury High School students, unveiled the town’s newest memorial in honor of the civil rights icon on Monday.
The Martin Luther King Jr. in Connecticut Memorial commemorates King’s time in Simsbury during the summers of 1944 and 1947, when he worked in the tobacco fields. In letters to his mother, King said his experience in Simsbury was influential to his beginnings as a religious leader. His time in Connecticut also introduced him to desegregation.
Students and other project officials gathered at the Simsbury Free Library to welcome the new addition. The event was closed to the public due to CDC guidelines, but people were invited to a drive-by event, which was also streamed on the organization’s website.
Joao Galafassi is one of the many students involved with the project.
“We want this memorial to serve to educate people about the struggle that existed and still exists today to obtain equal rights and how Dr. King dedicated his life to making that a reality,” Galafassi said.
The mission to document King’s time in Simsbury started with a student-made documentary in 2010. “Summers of Freedom: The Story of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Connecticut” was aired on CBS and received national acclaim, according to Galafassi.
After the documentary, students were inspired to create a more lasting memory of King. Planning for the memorial began in 2011, and the group broke ground at the Simsbury Free Library in October 2018. New students have joined the project over the years, all with the same mission in mind: to honor King’s impact on Simsbury and vice versa.
“I started in the committee my freshman year because it was something my two older sisters were a part of. They were involved with creating the documentary,” said student Maeve Willerup. “I immediately was interested and found that the memorial in town would create a wonderful place to really get to know Martin Luther King Jr.”
Her dad, Jay Willerup, is a local architect who volunteered to help bring the memorial to life.
The memorial consists of five glass panels honoring everything from King’s family history to his legacy. After years of planning, each detail was carefully picked to symbolize King’s life.
“The entry and exit markers located at the north and south side convey Dr. King’s journey from the South to the North,” Galafassi said. “The glass panels were chosen to allow the sun to illuminate Dr. King’s words and represent the idea of worlds having no bounds.”
The students were also joined by Richard Curtiss, chair of the Simsbury History Department and project ideator. The memorial represents the community’s hard work and King’s influence, he said.
“Certainly in the times that we are living in, Martin Luther King has taken on a greater significance,” Curtiss added. “He stands for a symbol of equality, a symbol of what’s right with America and a symbol for what you believe in.”