Speakers at an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Portland argued America — and Maine — are going backward in the march for equality as the chasm between the wealthy and the poor grows to historic levels.
Meanwhile, at the University of Maine at Orono, the focus was on education and King’s vision for how American children should learn — regardless of race, social or economic standing.
In Portland, where the local NAACP branch held its 31st annual holiday breakfast at the Holiday Inn By the Bay, guest speakers applied the civil rights leader’s message of equality to the subject of wealth and poverty.
“The wealth gap has become reminiscent of the early 1900s,” Dr. Nicole Witherbee, senior associate at the John T. Gorman Foundation, said Monday morning. “We’re going backward instead of forward.”
And within growing economic disparity, event speakers said, is a continued racial divide.
Witherbee offered a range of statistics reminding attendees of the widening economic disparity in America — corporate CEO pay has risen from 25 times that of company workers to 250 times over the last 40 years — and said state and federal cuts to social programs will be more devastating because of it.
In a Monday morning event that capped a weekend of festivities and also featured annual recognitions, music and theater — the latter coming in an excerpt of the one-woman play “ Warriors Don’t Cry” about the 1957 school integration in Little Rock, Ark., performed by Almeria Campbell — speakers such as Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree urged attendees to fight a slate of MaineCare cuts being proposed by Gov. Paul LePage.
LePage is seeking to help close a reported $220 million shortfall in the state Department of Health and Human Services budget by tightening eligibility requirements, eliminating services and repealing coverage entirely for thousands of MaineCare recipients to bring Maine’s program closer to national averages. The governor has argued state spending on welfare has outpaced taxpayers’ ability to cover it.
But speakers at Portland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day event said such cuts would further widen the gap between the proverbial haves and have-nots.
Witherbee said that in Maine, the top 1 percent of income earners paid an average of 10 percent of their incomes in taxes, while the bottom 20 percent paid an average of 17 percent of their incomes in taxes. Trends like that, she said, continue driving average Mainers into lower classes, where they will more need social programs to get by, while disproportionately empowering the wealthy.
Exacerbating the backward trend in equality, event speakers said, are signs that minorities are falling behind faster economically than whites.
Dr. Lynne Miller, who joined fellow University of Southern Maine faculty member Dr. Eve Raimon with a joint address Monday morning, said that many more black and African-American students fail to graduate high school in four years than their white counterparts — 38.9 percent compared to 22.4 percent, respectively.
Among the numbers cited Monday by Dr. Kalahn Taylor-Clark, director of health policy at the National Partnership for Women, was that blacks in Maine are much more likely to live in poverty, with 34 percent compared to 14 percent of whites living in poverty. That disparity is greater than the national average, where there is a 23-percent-to-13-percent gap between blacks and whites, she said.
“Progress toward realizing America’s dream of equality have stalled, and in some segments, reversed,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland branch of the NAACP.
Denise Patmon, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and director of the undergraduate teacher licensure program, delivered the keynote address at the 16th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast at UMaine on Monday morning.
Patmon said King was a stand-out student, but was kicked out of first grade for a short period after school officials found out his mother had entered him into classes before he turned 5. Once they let King back into school, the same officials recognized he was too advanced for first grade and pushed him straight to second.
King often spoke and wrote about how education would need to serve as a tool in the push toward integration and equality in the country.
King envisioned education parks, where students of all races would come together to learn about race and equality by playing together. That sort of knowledge would enable those students to tackle problems such as discrimination in the future, according to Patmon.
“The point is to activate ideas in an effort to solve the larger issues that face us in this world,” she said.
Fellow students can play a big part in bringing that sort of education to peers of all races and cultural backgrounds, Patmon said, citing the example of a Bar Harbor student who was honored at the ceremony for her efforts in diversity education.
Hannah Paradis, 14, a freshman at Mount Desert Island High School, was recognized by the Bangor Area NAACP, UMaine and speakers at the event for her efforts toward educating her fellow students about diversity.
As an eighth-grader at Connors Emerson Middle School, Paradis, an African-American, asked teachers and Principal Michael Zboray to help her organize a Black History Month celebration. The school invited members of the NAACP and an immigrant from Ghana.
“I want people to know how humiliating it is for someone to be controlled by discrimination,” Paradis said. “I want to eliminate the pain and embarrassment that discrimination causes.”
Paradis said most other students have taken interest in the Black History Month events, but others have brushed the messages aside. She said it’s hurtful to see other students on Facebook and other social networking sites use racial slurs as a way of addressing friends.
“I want people to be aware of racial sensitivity and discrimination,” Paradis said after reflecting on the life lessons provided by the words of King. “It may be difficult to stand up for yourself, but imagine the amount of courage it takes to stand up for someone else.”