I had the privilege of attending the celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Fairfield University. The university honored civil rights leader Diane Nash, a pivotal activist in the movement and a close colleague and friend of Dr. King. She is, by any measure, an important figure in American history and in the life of America as a democracy.

However, I was disappointed for two reasons: first, that our first selectman, Michael Tetreau, did not attend (nor did anyone from town government). Second, that among the 180 or so attendees (about equal in number of blacks and whites), only about 20 were students.

Given the importance of Diane Nash in the civil rights movement -- she was an organizer of both the heroic Freedom Rides and lunch-counter desegregation in the early 60s -- and the great importance of the civil rights movement in this country, the significance of her visit to our town cannot be overstated. This was a very big deal.

As a close reader of American history, I believe that in all ways the civil rights movement was as important, and fought with as much principle, as the war that founded this country. Its practical effect was to ensure that rights and democratic freedoms -- long denied blacks in this country since its founding, and enshrined in our constitution: giving blacks only three-fifths the value of whites -- were won; in this respect, its achievements were equal to the battle for independence (let us not forget: those were spurred by a desire to avoid paying a tax), but were born from the desire for equal treatment, equal rights, equal human dignity, under the law.

It is one thing to give lip service to civil rights and equality and to enjoy in its hard-won benefits without consideration of the struggles involved; it is another to attend to it and to honor those who made great sacrifices to help us all achieve it. We all owe them for these gains, for this courage, for this contribution to America as a democracy. Those who missed this convocation, and who should have attended, did themselves, their university, and the town great disfavor.

John Niesyn