Midway through a historical restoration, the Abyssinian Meeting House stands as a testament to the racial conflicts that troubled Portland’s past.

The impressive timber-frame structure was built in 1828 by the city’s black residents, who no longer would be relegated to the back pews of Portland’s white congregations. It’s the nation’s third-oldest black church, after meetinghouses in Boston and Nantucket, and is believed to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

“The struggle is not new for us,” said Pamela Cummings, acting chairwoman of the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian. “The mere existence of this building shows there was a need for a safe place for African-Americans and slaves seeking freedom.”

The struggle to create a safe place persists, according to Cummings and other prominent members of Maine’s African-American community. On the threshold of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which celebrates the birth of the slain civil rights leader, they reflected on King’s vision for a “beloved community,” where some measure of racial harmony would be achieved through nonviolent protest.

Racial conflict has dominated the news and conversations in Maine in recent months, despite the state’s relatively small black population. Just 1.4 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people identify as black or African-American, according to the U.S. Census.

Tears flowed at a memorial service held in June at Merrill Auditorium in Portland after nine people were gunned down at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina. More recently, Mainers squared off after Gov. Paul LePage said drug dealers named “Dee Money, Smoothie, Shifty” come here to sell heroin and “half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave.” The comment drew extensive national coverage.

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland, does his best to counter racially charged political rhetoric and rancor.

“There are forces that would prefer separation and segregation instead of community,” Lewis said. “There are many people who thrive in chaos. How do you build a beloved community? Well, you don’t build it that way.”

‘HAVE TO KEEP MOVING FORWARD’

While recent events leave room to question whether progress has been made toward racial equality and understanding, Lewis recalled a favorite King quote that offers some encouragement: “If you can’t fly, then run; if you can’t run, then walk; if you can’t walk, then crawl; but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

“There are many ways to actualize (King’s) vision, but it is definitely about moving forward, not backward,” Lewis said. “There may be a knocking down and a getting up, but you keep moving forward.”

Lewis noted that the proliferation of cellphones has produced an unprecedented flurry of videos that show police beating or killing black people. What might have been viewed as isolated incidents in the past now appear to demonstrate a pattern of abuse, he said.

“The advent of social media has brought to the fore, visually and audibly, things that have been there all along,” Lewis said. “The powers that be can no longer filter and censor the news. The covers have been pulled back. You can ask, ‘Are we going backward?’ My question is, ‘Have we ever really left where we were?’ ”

Lewis said the most powerful thing anyone can do to fight racism is to identify it, whether within themselves or others. Political rhetoric wielded against the poor, immigrants and other disenfranchised groups is a “tried and true strategy” to create divisions in the electorate, he said.

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland, reflects on the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland, says the most powerful thing anyone can do to fight racism is to identify it. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Calling it what it is starts the process of dealing with it,” Lewis said. “Community is about finding something in common. It doesn’t take away the distinctions that make us different. We don’t choose our race, ethnicity or color. We choose to hate, vilify, denigrate or segregate. It is a choice to propagate a lie that one is superior to another.”

‘ONLY LIGHT CAN DO THAT’

For Bob Greene, a retired Associated Press reporter who worked internationally, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have amplified awareness of oppression, division and strife across the globe.

“There’s so much hate,” said Greene, who lives in South Portland. “Whether it’s a police shooting, or a response to it, or a mosque being destroyed, or a synagogue, or a Christian church. We see it all the time now. It’s instant and it’s everywhere.”

Greene described himself as an optimist and said he believes we’ve made progress toward King’s ideal, “but the pace is so slow, and I see so many immediately wanting to go to the dark side.”

Bob Greene Joel Page/Staff Photographer

Bob Greene of South Portland, a retired Associated Press reporter, says we’ve made progress toward King’s ideal but the pace is slow.
Joel Page/Staff Photographer

Greene recalled a King quote that, for him, shares territory with Bible-based Christian precepts such as “do unto others” and “love thy neighbor.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” Greene said, quoting King. “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Greene said the answer to many race-based problems is face-to-face communication that diminishes us-versus-them misunderstandings.

“We need to really talk to each other, not just sit on opposite sides of the room like politicians and shout at each other,” Greene said. “People often don’t have problems with individuals, they have problems with groups. There’s good and bad in everything, but connecting with an individual helps to promote understanding of an entire community.”

‘LEARN, BABY, LEARN’

John Jenkins, a political leader and motivational speaker who lives in Auburn, met King when the civil rights leader visited his high school in Newark, New Jersey, just a few weeks before King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

A student leader at the time, Jenkins sat on the stage while King spoke and shook his hand afterward. Jenkins recalled being wowed at the sight of King’s entourage, a group of empowered black people moving as one and calling for action.

“I was swept up in the moment. Maybe that’s what inspired me to run for office down the road,” said Jenkins, who was mayor of Lewiston in the 1990s, served as Maine’s first black state senator from 1996 to 1998, and more recently was mayor of Auburn.

The snippet of King’s speech that Jenkins carries with him referred to the race riots of the 1960s, when inner-city residents often burned and looted their own neighborhoods. Some would chant, “Burn, baby, burn.” King sought to change the message.

“He said it should be ‘Learn, baby, learn, so you can earn, baby, earn,’ ” Jenkins recalled. “That really hit me. I was an impressionable kid and I guess it stuck with me.”

These days, when Jenkins speaks to groups about race, he delivers an entreaty to look “Beyond the Dream: The Awakening and The Work,” referring to King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.

“At some point, you gotta wake up and do something,” Jenkins said. “It behooves us to move beyond the dream. Until it becomes your dream, we’ll be content with having a breakfast, hearing a few speeches, singing a few songs and then going back to business as usual.”

Jogn Jenkins. Bernie Friberge photo courtesy of John Jenkins

John Jenkins, a political leader and motivational speaker, says we must continue to work for equality for all.  Courtesy photo

That’s OK if that’s what you want, Jenkins said, but he challenged people to value what King did as much as what he said.

“Live your dream,” Jenkins said. “Find where you can commit. Find your way to serve. We need new voices to encourage people to wake up. The struggle continues. We must continue to work for equality for all; otherwise, it will easily slip back.”

‘LOVE IS THE ONLY FORCE’

Cummings, who heads the Abyssinian project, believes much progress has been made in advancing the status of black people, including the fact that the United States has its first African-American president.

“I’m not sure we have a long way to go,” Cummings said. “I think we need to figure out a better way to go. Progress has been made and we’re moving forward. But with each generation we have to earn it and win it again.”

Cummings said she’s heartened when she sees young people protesting today “because that’s how it was done before.” When she hears racist or hateful political rhetoric, it gives her “cause to pause,” she said, but she doesn’t “sit in judgment.” Politicians who foment hate must answer to God, she said.

“I’ve been wronged and discriminated against, and you’ve got to get back up and move on,” Cummings said. “It shows maybe we’ve got to educate people a little bit more. We’ve got to enlighten each other.”

Cummings’ favorite King quote makes her point: “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

“We will never overcome evil with evil,” Cummings said. “Racism is really a spiritual matter. You don’t eradicate hate with hate. Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Shine a light. That’s what I’m gonna do.”