Dillon Murray sits on the steps of his paternal grandparents' house in Bangor on June 24. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Dillon Murray gathered June 1 with hundreds of others in his hometown to demonstrate for racial justice following the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer.

The group marched from the park next to the Bangor Public Library through downtown to Davenport Park on the corner of Main and Cedar streets. There, a speaker asked everyone to take a knee.

“I put down my sign and I started to get down on one knee, but the organizer said, ‘No. You people of color and Black people, you stand up,’” Murray, 28, said a few days later. “So, I’m standing up and looking around and seeing people of color. We were being seen and we were seeing each other.”

Seeing other African-Americans was rare when Murray was growing up in a white family in Bangor. He had role models to follow for community service and activism. But he had no role models to help him shape his identity as a Black man in the U.S. And he experienced racism along the way. Today, he sees a turning point in Maine and across the country as the Black Lives Matter movement gains traction.

Murray was born in Jackson, Mississippi, to a single mother who was unable to raise him. When he was a year old, two white parents in Bangor adopted Murray, and he grew up in one of the whitest states in the country.

“Because I was adopted by a middle-class, white family, I had a doctor to go see when I was sick,” Murray said. “I always had food when I was hungry. I sought an education after high school. I always had a place to be and live. It hurts that not everybody can have that opportunity, and it’s because they look exactly the same way I do.”

Murray was adopted by Robert “Buddy” Murray Jr. and Margaret “Maggie” Murray of Bangor. His father served in the Maine Legislature and in Democratic Gov. John Baldacci’s administration. He is now a Superior Court judge. His mother is a writer.

A Murray family photo taken in 2003 shows (left to right) Dillon Murray, his father, Robert “Buddy” Murray Jr., his sister, Erin Murray, and his mother Margaret “Maggie” Murray. Credit: Courtesy of the Murray Family

“There weren’t a lot of formal resources about raising Black kids,” Buddy Murray said. “Our ability to expose [Dillon and his older sister Erin, who is also Black and adopted] to Black culture and Black issues here was somewhat limited. We did develop an appreciation of fairly explicit prejudice and bias that would manifest itself from time to time. It was painful and discouraging as a parent to see, but it was relatively rare.”

Dillon Murray remembers his early school years at Abraham Lincoln School as free of prejudice and a time when he made friends easily. But when he got to the William S. Cohen Middle School and Bangor High School, things grew more contentious. Other students called him the N word. A teacher, who later apologized, called him a “cotton picker” in class.

Dillon Murray’s Black Lives Matter bracelet sits on his wrist as he talks about growing up Black in Bangor during an interview on June 24. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“No one had the courage to stand up for me, including me,” he said. “I felt that I couldn’t stand up for myself because nobody had my back.”

Murray said that he admires the Black Bangor High School students who, in a recent Bangor Daily News article, spoke out about racism at the predominantly white school, resulting in the school department launching an outside investigation.

“Everything that happened to them, happened to me,” he said. In a city where Black people make up 2 percent of the population, “I had no Black teachers and no Black role models.”

What Murray did have in his family were a history of involvement in Democratic politics going back to his grandparents and a commitment to public service.

“One of my earliest memories is going around town with Dad putting up lawn signs,” he said.

Buddy Murray served in the Maine Senate from 1996 to 2000. Prior to that, he served in the Maine House from 1982 to 1986.

Two experiences, both outside of Maine, affected Dillon Murray’s search to define himself as a Black man in a white state.

One was Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

“I remember seeing the pictures after Katrina with people stranded on top of their houses, and most of them were Black,” he said.

The other was a family car trip to Florida that took Murray through Washington, D.C., on New Year’s Day a decade later.

Dillon Murray stands on the porch of his paternal grandparents’ house in Bangor on June 24. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“We drove to Florida and back over Christmas break,” he said. “I remember seeing all these magnificent structures as we drove around the deserted city. But we also saw people camped out over the vents where the heat came up from the subway. Almost all of them were Black.”

Those images stayed with Murray and helped him decide he wanted to play an active role in society to bring about change. That decision was solidified when he was still a high school student in 2008 and met presidential candidate Barack Obama when he made a campaign stop in Bangor.

“I was introduced to him with my white mother, and he had a white mother,” he said. “Meeting him and seeing him elected president made me realize that I can be whatever I want to be.”

Murray graduated from Bangor High School in 2010 and from the University of Maine in 2017 with a Bachelor’s degree in political science. He soon moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a Democratic digital advertising and fundraising firm.

He returned to Maine last fall and began working as the digital director for the 16 Counties Coalition, a “social welfare” organization led by veteran Democratic staffers that has been critical of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Murray, who now lives in Portland, said he wanted to work more on policy than in politics.

Dillon Murray stands on the porch of his paternal grandparents’ home in Bangor on June 24. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“I grew up with a strong sense of service,” he said. “I’ve tried to take that to heart. Politics is more about winning and less about serving.”

In addition to starting the new job last year, Murray started a new relationship with Taylor Mogul, 28, of Bangor. They went to high school together and knew each other but did not date before last fall.

Like Murray, she has deep roots in Bangor. Her paternal grandfather, Jules Mogul, moved to Maine in the late 1950s and joined his brother-in-law, Edward Gross, in Bangor’s first Jewish law firm that eventually became Gross, Minsky and Mogul. Her father, Stephen Mogul, is now a partner in the firm, and Murray was a guest via Zoom at the Mogul family’s Passover Seder in April.

The story of the enslaved Jewish people’s flight from Egypt made an impression on Murray. And as Murray, who was raised a Catholic, has absorbed lessons about Judaism, the Mogul family is learning to be anti-racist.

“Darlene and I have learned a lot about social justice from Dillon,” Steve Mogul said of himself and his wife. “For me, it’s been about exposing and accepting my own intrinsic bias and about the inherent biases in our systems. I’ve learned that even if I cannot fully understand the experience of being Black in America, particularly in Maine, I can still be an ally.”

Murray these days is taking the opportunity to participate in as many Black Lives Matter demonstrations as he can. He took part in a protest in Washington, D.C., commemorating Juneteenth and has made several videos talking about his experiences growing up black in Bangor.

Murray wants to continue being part of the racial justice movement that has risen out of the recent slayings of Black men and women by police officers.

“Those are the sparks that ignited this fire right now, but the gas has been leaking for years,” he said.

Murray sees his participation in community activities, be they protests or celebrations, as his family’s commitment to service coming full circle.

When he was a child, the Murrays took Dillon and Erin to the Christmas party put on by members of the Prince Hall Lodge North Star 22 for Black children in the Bangor area. A few years ago, Dillon Murray joined the African-American masonic organization.

“When I was a kid, my parents took us there to see a Black Santa,” he said, a broad grin spreading across his face. “This past Christmas, I was Black Santa. I got so much satisfaction out of it.”