ORONO, Maine — In recognizing the progress of the march toward equality, speakers during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast at the University of Maine focused on how much still needs to be done.
More than 250 people gathered Monday morning for a breakfast honoring King’s legacy at Wells Conference Center at UMaine.
“We have reasons for continued optimism, and we have equally strong reasons for concern,” said Michael Alpert, president of the Bangor NAACP chapter.
Alison Beyea, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, delivered Monday’s keynote address. She called 2015 a “heavy year,” during which the deaths of Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Freddie Gray incited sadness, anger and little accountability.
She and other speakers criticized Gov. Paul LePage for his comments surrounding drug dealers impregnating white girls, which drew national attention.
It’s part of a continuing trend of thinly veiled, “coded racism,” harkening back to the days when people made such claims to incite violence and arrests of black men, she argued.
“What happens in Baltimore matters in Bangor, what happens in Cleveland matters in The County, and what happens during a town hall in Bridgton matters all around the country,” Beyea said.
Beyea went on to discuss the role race plays in Maine’s schools. She said the Maine ACLU is exploring whether minority students are treated unfairly or are disadvantaged, especially in Maine’s larger cities, where there is a larger diversity in the student body.
She cited data from one school district, which had 25 percent black students, that indicated half of all suspensions involved black students and every student expelled from that school was black.
Beyea declined to name the district during or after her speech, but it matches public federal data from 2011 by the Lewiston School Department. That data shows there were four expulsions that year and 973 suspensions.
Also during Monday’s event, Antonia Carroll, a fourth-year chemistry and international affairs double major at UMaine, received the Dorothy Clarke Wilson Peace Writing Prize for her poem, “Still stirring.”
In the poem, Carroll describes why it’s important to keep working to find solutions to racism, and to “stir the pot” to keep it at the forefront of national conversations. She cites a classroom survey that found 39 out of 52 students didn’t believe racism exists at UMaine, and seven out of 52 students didn’t believe racism was a problem in the United States. Islamophobia, the mistreatment and misrepresentation of transgender individuals, and the struggle for equality for minorities show there is still more to do, she wrote.
“Why do we keep stirring? / Because this is the status quo / And the status quo must change / And because an object at rest stays at rest unless acted upon by an outside force.”
“We have to keep stirring / Because our black classmates / our Muslim teammates / our transgender friends / they are sitting on the bottom of the pot / and they’re burning.”
Carroll’s poem concludes:
“If you really ‘celebrated diversity’ / You would keep stirring / Because progress for one person / Is progress for every person / And I know / it’s heavy / and I know / you’re so tired / but we can’t stop now / and we can’t do it alone.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.