August 26, 2013

Maine civil rights figure recalls prom protest

From the archives: in a Portland Press Herald story from May 24, 2004, former Deering High School student Una Richardson recalls her 1971 protest against the Elks club and her classmates' decision to hold their prom there.

By Kelley Bouchard kbouchard@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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click image to enlarge

Una Richardson from her Deering High School 1971 yearbook.

She called for "respect for all people." She said holding the prom at the Elks club "is undemocratic, but more important, it is immoral." The 240 students in the audience "were impressed and applauded her warmly."

When it came time to vote, however, her classmates sided with the class president. According to the Ramblings article, he noted the benefits of having the prom in a modern hall instead of what is today the Eastland Park Hotel. He said he knew several Elks members personally, and they weren't racist. Regardless of the Elks' membership rules, he said, blacks would be allowed to attend the prom.

In the end, the class voted 176-64 to hold the prom at the Elks club. It was supposed to be a secret ballot, but the students were asked to stand up for a head count instead. Some students at the time wondered if peer pressure influenced the public vote. Una's head was spinning as she left the auditorium.

"I was disappointed in the faculty and I was disappointed in my class, " she said in a recent telephone interview. "It was like they didn't care. They listened politely and said, `OK, you're done, that's it.' It would have been nice if someone would have come up to me afterward and said, `Wow, I didn't know blacks couldn't join the Elks club. That's not right. I'm not going to the prom, either.' I would have felt a little better."

Another perspective

She wasn't the only disappointed Deering student. Michael Messerschmidt was an editor of the student newspaper and wrote the account of the senior class assembly.

"I was really upset, " said Messerschmidt, now a lawyer with the Portland firm of Preti, Flaherty, Beliveau, Pachios and Haley. "I agreed with Una. A lot of us did. But obviously not enough. I remember being surprised at how lopsided the vote was. I remember being very disappointed in my classmates."

Messerschmidt, whose clients include the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, believes the students' vote was a reflection of their parents and Portland at that time. Messerschmidt's upbringing and understanding of oppression was unusual because both of his parents were Nazi concentration camp survivors. He figures some of his classmates had parents who were members of the Elks club.

"I don't think the kids were racist. I don't think they were trying to be malicious, " Messerschmidt said. "I do think they were insensitive and naive. I think the vote shows a tremendous insensitivity. They didn't appreciate how difficult it would be for Una to attend the prom in a place that otherwise wouldn't allow a black person to be a member."

Una didn't attend the June 11 prom. Instead, she joined the NAACP-organized protest outside the Elks club that Friday evening, even though one teacher tried to talk her out of it. The 50 or so picketers included members of a local peace group and several Deering students, the Press Herald reported at the time. The protesters greeted prom-goers and club members with shouts of "racist, " "oinker" and "shame."

Three days later, the Portland Elks voted 182-8 to drop the whites-only rule from the local charter, but the club remained bound by the rules of the 105-year-old national organization.

Supreme Court ruling

A break in battle came in June 1972, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided the Pennsylvania case, ruling that states have a right to set their own liquor laws. The following December, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court decided against the state's 15 Elks lodges and upheld the liquor commission's application of Maine's antidiscrimination law.

The Maine clubs appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but in April 1973, the justices decided to stick by their ruling on the Pennsylvania case. A month later, the national Moose organization removed racial references from its constitution and bylaws. In July 1973, the national Elks group did the same, after fighting the change for two years.

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