BANGOR, Maine — One of the most important lessons to be learned from the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is that ordinary people have the power to transform society, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said Sunday.
“The civil rights movement has been blessed with great leaders,” Collins said, speaking at a Martin Luther King Day event at All Souls Congregational Church. “But even the greatest, like Dr. Martin Luther King, know that it is the goodness in the hearts of ordinary people that ultimately makes the difference today.”
After all, Collins pointed out, it happened in Bangor during World War II when residents banded together to open a USO to blacks who were shut out of a segregated USO at the then-Dow Air Field.
Collins told that story from a book about black history in Maine during A Service of Light celebration of King’s life, one day before the national holiday marking the birthday of the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who was assassinated in 1968.
More than 200 people attended the service that featured four area church choirs — Destiny Center Worship Singers, St. John’s Episcopal Church Choir, All Souls Church Choir and St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church Choir — along with singers and musicians from the community.
Dr. Esther Rauch, educator and former vice president of Bangor Theological Seminary, read a passage from “Standing in Need of Prayer,” the memoir of King’s wife, Coretta Scott King. Rauch and other local religious leaders read “Prayers for a Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration,” which was written by a member of the Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church.
Collins told the audience she recently received the book, “Maine’s Visible Black History,” written by H.H. Price and Gerald E. Talbot, in which she had read the story of Bangor residents’ efforts in 1942 to found a USO-type organization, which would be integrated. At that time, Collins said, the USOs were segregated.
Blacks and whites in the community founded the USO Center for Colored Soldiers, which was on Columbia Street.
“Through the efforts of ordinary people in our community, it soon became the busiest place in town, a place where military personnel and civilians of all races and backgrounds came together for games, dancing, sports and fellowship,” Collins said, recounting the story from the book.
Bangor’s effort was mirrored in cities in the South, where ordinary people committed extraordinary acts, Collins said. Rosa Parks refused in 1955 to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. Five years later, four young black college students would not get up from a lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., and sparked a wave of sit-ins in protest.
“Soon this phenomenon swept through the South, in big cities and small towns, people of good will, people of all races and stations in life, gathered wherever segregation was imposed and stood, shoulder to shoulder, in a peaceful yet determined protest of a degrading policy,” Collins said.
Mainers have produced their own corps of ordinary people who contributed to the abolitionist movement in the 19th century, Collins said. The Rev. Amos N. Freeman became the first acknowledged leader of a black community in Maine, at a church in Portland. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which exposed the evils of slavery, in Brunswick. Joshua Chamberlain, who was born in Brewer, saved the Union Army at Gettysburg by holding Little Round Top during the famous Civil War battle in 1863.
Although the civil rights movement may not be at the forefront as it was in King’s era, ordinary people, Collins said, still have the power to bring about change. Even now, she said, relief efforts in the wake of the earthquake that struck Haiti last week are being led by those ordinary people.
“The unimaginable devastation in Haiti has spurred a vigorous response from our country, from massive financial aid to the valiant lifesaving efforts of our military and medical personnel,” she said.
“Our government’s response to this great humanitarian crisis is being matched by the generosity and the compassion of ordinary citizens,” she said. “Even in these difficult economic times, contributions are pouring in [and] collection baskets are filled to overflowing.”