ORONO, Maine — The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. should be remembered as a champion for all marginalized groups, not just those he marched with, according to Maine tribal members working to reconcile a long history of discrimination and subjugation.
More than 300 people attended the Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast commemoration Monday morning at the University of Maine’s Wells Conference Center in Orono, making it the largest to date, according to university officials.
Esther Attean and Denise Altvater, members of Maine-Wabanaki REACH, delivered the keynote address at Monday’s event. They talked about the work of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission — shedding light on a long history of child welfare practices that ripped apart families and diminished tribes.
For more than a century, Wabanaki children were taken from their families by the state or churches and placed in foster care or schools, where speaking their language or practicing their customs was often forbidden. The commission has been reaching out to individuals and studying how this system has affected individuals involved.
Altvater is one tribal member who was taken into foster care as a child, where she lost her family, tribe and culture.
The ultimate goal of the commission’s effort, which has been underway for the past year, is to release a comprehensive report this summer on their findings and recommend “best practices” for Maine’s child welfare process to prevent such practices in the future.
In his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” King condemned historic injustices faced by Native American populations.
“Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race,” King said in the book. “Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population.”
“For me, the work of Martin Luther King was about giving everyone a voice,” Altvater said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins also spoke at Monday’s event, announcing that she would participate in a Bipartisan Civil Rights Pilgrimage commemorating the 50th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march in Selma, Alabama, this March.
Bloody Sunday, on March 7, 1965, was a 600-strong march to the Alabama capitol led by the Rev. Hosea Williams and a young activist named John Lewis. That march ended at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, when state and local police stopped the marchers, launched tear gas and beat demonstrators.
The violence spurred much larger marches, led by King, in the days that followed.
Lewis went on to become a U.S. representative in Georgia. He will be attending the March event as well.
Several speakers at the Monday event referenced the protests and demonstrations protesting recent decisions to not indict police officers in the killing of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York.
“Assuredly a lot has changed since Martin Luther King, but we’re still seeing the ripple effects of the fragmentation of this society,” said University of Maine Dean of Students Robert Dana.
He said universities play a vital role in mending that and need to work “to begin to heal and knit together the cracks in our society.”
Monday’s event was presented by the Greater Bangor Area NAACP.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.