ORONO, Maine — The keynote speaker at the annual breakfast in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged more than 300 people who attended the event at the University of Maine not to be complacent about the struggle for civil rights.
In his speech, The Rev. Phil Ertha of York, Ala., said Monday that although water fountains no longer are labeled “colored” and “white,” America is still a segregated nation. The divisions are less overt, Ertha said, with the distinctions being drawn by class, income and education rather than skin color.
“Ask not what Dr. King’s dream can do for you,” the minister said in revising a famous quote from President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. “Ask what you can do with Dr. King’s dream.”
A group of students has done that in forming the first on-campus chapter of the NAACP, it was announced at the breakfast sponsored by the University of Maine and the Greater Bangor Area NAACP.
Gov. John Baldacci also attended, and in his speech, urged Mainers to look for injustice, and work to right it. Representatives from the congressional delegation and Legislature also attended.
Baldacci urged the group at Wells Conference Center to remember not only King’s wisdom, passion and activism but also the slain civil rights leader’s words when he said, “rocky roads lead to the Promised Land” and “change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability.”
“For all the progress we’ve made,” the governor said, “we also know that intolerance does exist.
Occasionally, there are isolated incidents that, while certainly not reflective of the community as a whole, when they occur these cases remind us that we still have a long way to go.
“An affront to any one of us,” he said, “is an affront to all of us, and we cannot rest until we rid our society of this kind of hatred. It’s not enough to be content to fight hatred, but we must also remind ourselves of the values of our country and our state and ensure opportunity for all.”
Robert Kennedy, president of the University of Maine, said in welcoming attendees that the university should represent and celebrate King’s ideals. He described the state’s land grant university as a “supportive, welcoming and open community.”
Ertha, who was born in Boston, has ties to Maine. John E. Ertha, the minister’s late uncle, graduated from the university in 1955, according to program notes.
The minister, who now leads a church in Alabama, was chaplain to the medical examiner’s office in Oklahoma City at the Arthur P. Murrah Federal Building after it was bombed on April 19, 1995.
Ertha opened his speech Monday by singing, without accompaniment, “Impossible Dream” from the 1965 musical “Man of La Mancha.” It was written to be sung by Don Quixote, a man who tilted at windmills.
“Today, unfortunately, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a habit,” he said. “It’s not special anymore for a lot of people. I believe somebody said, ‘[It’s] like a Hallmark card.’”
The new segregation is difficult to recognize, Ertha said.
“Instead [of separate water fountains], you see those with homes and those without homes — a segregation of homeless folks,” the minister said. “No longer do you see sharecroppers but those with MasterCards in their pockets who won’t talk to those with food stamp cards in their pockets. We have a financial segregation.”
He said the election of a black U.S. president has made people forget King’s “I Have Dream” speech, delivered in 1963 in Washington, D.C. Ertha said the key word in one of the sections of the speech is “forever.”
“Dr. King said that we must forever conduct our struggle on the high plain of discipline and dignity,” Ertha said. “He did not say when things look great or when there’s a black man in the White House. He didn’t say to stop when we feel all right. He said we were to forever continue the march.
“It’s easy to dream, but we must wake up and carry out the dream,” the minister urged. “I call to your attention that nightmares also happen when you are asleep. So, sometimes, we dream too long. We must wake up America and move forward. We must wake up and carry on the dream, march on to greater times until we march on to Zion.”