In deference to the times, Maine’s largest annual observance of the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., hosted for the past forty years by the NAACP, was moved from the ballroom at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland to Zoom this year, but its power was anything but diminished. If anything, the virtual format expanded the reach of the event to a whole new statewide audience – last year the dinner was attended in person by 735 people, but this year registration was closed at 1,600 people, who tuned in from all over Maine.
Assistant Majority Leader Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, spoke of the importance of the annual event in her life growing up Black in Maine. She said that when she was a child, it was the only time in the year she saw lots of people who looked like herself gathered in one place, and she looked forward to it each year. The annual event started as an idea tossed around a kitchen table forty years ago, grew to a formal breakfast at the Holiday Inn, and later to a banquet.
The event featured dozens of sessions in a day-long virtual teach-in and call to action that was organized by a committee that included representatives from organizations around the state – the NAACP of Maine, Maine Initiatives, the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine, Indigo Arts Alliance, Maine Equal Justice, Maine Center for Economic Policy, Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition, Maine Youth Justice, Mindbridge, Portland Empowered, Third Place.
From beginning to end, the event moved the needle far beyond an event honoring an inspirational and pivotal figure to one that also served as a call to action to dismantle systemic racism in Maine. Along with learning about Maine’s racist history, the focus of presentations was squarely on the present and the future. Speaker after speaker referred to the Black Lives Matter protests as a pivotal moment in the movement.
Many sessions included practical recommendations for how residents can help move the state forward. Attendees at the ACLU of Maine’s presentation were encouraged to stay informed about 86 potentially positive reform bills on the docket of the 130th session of Maine’s legislature, as well as 35 bills that are potentially anti-reform. Some of the anti-reform bills appear to be aimed at voter suppression, and anti-immigrant policies. The specifics of all these bills will become clear in the near future, as the legislature moves into higher gear. Residents can track the ACLU website for updates.
Black Owned Maine presenters Rose Barboza and Jerry Edwards spoke about the importance of understanding anti-racist economics. “Money that continues to flow as it has will serve to sustain the current system,” they said. They recommended looking at where one’s money is spent, and suggested buying from the (at least) 250 Black-owned businesses listed in the directory on their website, as well as from Black-owned businesses nationwide. They emphasized that these businesses run the gamut, and include providers of necessities such as food.
“We challenge you to be conscious of your spending, look at your list of things to purchase … ask if there is a Black-owned business that produces this. Put a plan in place to be an anti-racist consumer,” said Barboza.
Individual sessions began with reminders that Maine stands on land forcibly taken from the Wabanaki people, and that the United States was built on the forced labor of African Americans. The African Diaspora in Maine includes first-generation immigrants, who were represented on a panel facilitated by Shima Kabirigi that was organized by Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition (MIRC). That presentation began with a reminder that over 2 million Africans have immigrated to the U.S. since the 1980s, and that many fled home to escape the legacy of colonialism in Africa.
Fatuma Hussein, John Ochira, and Charles Mugabe participated in the MIRC panel. All agreed that colonialism’s legacy includes the African wars we see today, and that in Africa racism takes the form of tribalism, with Africans divided from each other. They talked about their shock on arriving in the U.S. and realizing that racism is widespread here, and is based on skin color.
Tickets for the day-long event were available on a sliding scale that ranged from zero to $100. Money raised through tickets and sponsorships helped offer honoraria to presenters and musicians, and seeded a new fund to create fellowships, internships, and other paid opportunities for African Americans, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color to advance racial equity and justice in Maine’s public policy. Most of the day’s sessions were recorded, and will be posted to the event website individually under the session pages.