ORONO, Maine — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. surely would have been proud considering the inauguration today of President-elect Barack Obama as the country’s first black president.
Yet, as former Attorney General Steven Rowe also pointed out to around 300 people who braved snowy roads to attend the 13th Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration, the assassinated civil rights leader’s dreams of racial and economic equality have not completely come true.
“We only need to recall that during the campaign and following the election, there were many offensive, racist acts committed by Maine people right here in this state,” said Rowe, who was the keynote speaker. “We know that there are people living in this state who are filled with prejudice, bigotry and ignorance. We only have to look at acts like these to know that Dr. King’s dream of racial justice is not complete.”
Attendees heard the words of King himself, along with music from singing groups, speeches from local elected officials, local NAACP officials, and student recitations during the event at the Wells Conference Center.
The Rev. Dewey Fagerburg, a member of the Greater Bangor NAACP, was scheduled to talk about the national organization’s 100th anniversary, but was unable to make it because of the weather. Diane Khiel, who does legal redress work for the NAACP, instead listed some of the association’s accomplishments since its 1909 founding.
The breakfast was scheduled to start at 8 a.m. but was delayed to 9:30 by Sunday’s snowstorm.
Most speakers touched on the fact that the national holiday honoring King’s birthday fell one day before Obama was due to be sworn in as U.S. president. As encouraged as Rowe is by the advancement the nation has taken in electing a black man, he said more work needs to be done.
In addition to alluding to incidents such as the black figures that were found hanging by nooses from trees on Mount Desert Island the day after Obama’s election, Rowe cited widening economic gaps in Maine as being far from King’s vision of equality.
“Dr. King’s dream of economic and social justice is still just that — a dream,” Rowe said. “And until we as a people, until we collectively as a people fully realize that dream, we cannot claim we have reached that full potential as a people and as a nation.”
Obama’s election itself hasn’t brought about change, but a chance for it, Rowe said. It’s up to citizens, he said, to work with the new president to bring about change.
“Let us commit our time, our talents, our energy, our resources, to complete that unfinished work,” he said. “If we do, we’ll help to empower and improve the lives of those around us. And if we do, we’ll also help move Dr. King’s dream closer to reality.”
Other speakers included UMaine president Robert Kennedy and Greater Bangor NAACP vice president George Mathis. Activist Ushi Atukee read from King’s book “Why We Can’t Wait.” The Rev. Bill Labbe gave the invocation, and Rabbi Darah Lerner offered a closing prayer. Two singing groups, Women with Wings and Renaissance, also performed.
Kennedy said King’s words — particularly a phrase the civil rights leader used in 1967 about growing opposition to the war in Vietnam and one Obama used on the campaign trail last year — still ring true today.
“From Afghanistan, to Iraq, to Gaza, to Wall Street, to the U.S. and the national economy, to Augusta, and right here in our own communities, there is ‘a fierce urgency of now,’ as only Dr. King could foretell,” Kennedy said.
UMaine students Brandon McLaughlin, Jeremy Kelly and Demetrius Washington-Ellison recited a poem titled “New Day” about Obama’s election. It was written by Joe Jackson, an inmate at the Maine Correctional Facility in Warren. The trio got a standing ovation after the final line, “It’s a new day!”
“It’s a powerful poem,” said UMaine junior and Black Students Union president Brandon McLaughlin. “If you read it and understand what he’s going through, you understand it a lot more.”
Rowe’s warning of work to be done affected some UMaine students.
“Even while I was sitting there I was thinking, there have been many foundation stones throughout history used to bridge the gaps of inequality,” said Bangor native Heather Kitchen, a UMaine graduate student in social work. “Martin Luther King was definitely a huge steppingstone, and it shows how much work is left to be done.”
The day was marked with talks, workshops, breakfasts and other events across the state.
In Portland, hundreds of people attended the NAACP Portland branch’s 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration, followed by a wreath-laying dedication at Monument Square. The breakfast was marked by a sense of hope on the eve of the inauguration of the first African-American elected as U.S. president.
Gerald Talbot of Portland, who was the first president of the NAACP’s Portland branch when it was founded in 1964, said King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is particularly meaningful this year because of Obama’s election. Talbot, who became Maine’s first black legislator when he was elected in 1972, was planning to attend inauguration ceremonies with family members on Tuesday.
“In your heart and your mind you have to put it together, that this is really happening,” said Talbot, 77. “I have to wake up and say that dream is coming true. What’s happening today and what’s happening tomorrow is unbelievable.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.