Organizers: This Year's Martin Luther King Jr. Day Marks A 'Reality Check' On Race

Jan 21, 2020

More than 700 people turned out for the 39th annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration Dinner Monday evening in Portland.  This year's theme was "Race, Sovereignty, and Maine at 200 Years - Where Do We Go From Here?"

The theme is a good time for a reset, said Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Indian Nation, one of several panel speakers at the event.

“So 2020, as has been mentioned, is the bicentennial of Maine," he said. "I see no better opportunity to try to get the state Legislature and the governor to focus and make some systematic changes to our existing power structure to better represent and protect the rights of minorities in this state. Our biggest challenge will be educating those who are currently in power, and how giving up some of that power will not result in harm to them."

A state task force made up of lawmakers and tribal leaders has recommended sweeping changes in the contentious, 40-year-old Indian Land Claims Settlement Act that courts have ruled extinguished certain tribal rights.  The proposed overhaul would give Maine tribes greater authority over gambling, fishing, taxes and other issues, but will need approval from the Maine legislature.

The theme of this year's annual event was named after Dr. King's fourth and last book. The idea is to connect core ideas of the Civil Rights Movement to problems that modern-day Indigenous, immigrant, poor and otherwise marginalized Mainers face.

"This year, what we thought we needed was a reality check," said event organizer and and Maine state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross. "And so you are getting a reality check, right?"

It's a reality check that should concern everyone, said Maine Youth Justice Artistic Director Abdul Ali. "So I think this fight is not only for black people anymore," Ali said. "I don't think this fight is only for people of color. I think his fight is for white people, too. I think this fight is for everybody to come in unity and say, 'Hey, we've really got to stop this.'"

Maine 1st District U.S. House Rep. Chellie Pingree highlighted the recent house passage of a bill that would restore parts of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“I think understanding the importance of a person's right to vote and the difference we can all make at the ballot box is just so critically important," Pingree said. "And while so many people fought in the Civil Rights movement to get us a Voting Rights Act, the Supreme Court has rolled back some of that and the new bill that we passed, is trying to return some of those protections.”

The bill, which passed by a House vote of 228-187, would make it more difficult for states to engage in voter suppression efforts. It's future is less certain in the Republican-controlled Senate.