January 20

Martin Luther King made a lasting first impression in Maine

The humble manner and powerful message of the civil rights icon left his Maine audience in awe.

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD — Georgette Sutton had never heard of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before she found herself sitting in a crowded gymnasium, transfixed by the powerful voice of the prominent civil rights leader.

click image to enlarge

Shawn Theriault smooths out wallpaper with civil rights images on it while installing a Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit in Leonard Hall at the University of New England on Thursday. The civil rights leader came to what was then St. Francis College in May 1964 to speak.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer



Past images of Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to St. Francis College and current images of UNE's 50-year celebration.



Fiftieth anniversary celebration of Dr. King’s visit to Maine will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Monday in Leonard Hall. Event will include songs from the Civil Rights Movement, the unveiling of a permanent exhibit on Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Maine and the screening of a short documentary about the trip.


“Economic Empowerment and Income Inequality: New Civil Rights Imperative,” will be held at noon on Jan. 22. Keynote address by Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League and former mayor of New Orleans.

“Health Empowerment through Community Engagement,” noon, Jan. 29, Ludcke Auditorium. Keynote by Starla Haiston Blanks, director of health promotion and policy at Community Voices: Healthcare for the Underserved at Morehouse School of Medicine.


A children’s celebration will be held from 10:30 a.m. to noon Monday at Daggett Lounge in Thorne Hall. Author Rohan Henry and songwriter Josephine Cameron will lead a program in remembrance of Dr. King. Ages 5 and up. Free.

A Climbing PoeTree Performance will be held from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Monday in Kresge Auditorium. Climbing PoeTree of Brooklyn, N.Y., will explore the intersection of arts and activism by interweaving spoken word, hip-hop and multimedia theater.


The annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Breakfast Celebration will be held from 8 to 11 a.m. Monday at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. William S. Cohen, former U.S. secretary of defense and U.S. senator, will speak.

The Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine will host a variety of events from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.


“Love and Marriage: A Celebration of Equal Rights” will be held at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Saco-Biddeford, 60 School St., Saco. The event will explore two successful campaigns for equal rights – interracial and same-sex marriage.

It was May 1964, the height of the civil rights movement, but that was a topic far from Sutton’s mind. She had grown up in rural Jay, where there were no black families, and was busy at home in Biddeford raising seven daughters.

But when King spoke during his first and only visit to Maine, Sutton was there at the urging of her husband. She couldn’t help but pay attention.

“His voice ... you just had to listen,” said Sutton, now 83. “It was an unbelievable moment. You could hear a pin drop, it was so quiet.”

The same year King was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he traveled to Maine to speak at St. Francis College in Biddeford – now the University of New England – and Bowdoin College in Brunswick.

That visit on May 7 was an exceptional moment for a small Catholic men’s college tucked along the coast of Biddeford. It was also a notable moment for a state far removed from much of the activity around the civil rights movement. Only about 3,300 of Maine’s more than 969,000 residents back then were black. Biddeford had three black residents in 1960, according to census records.

The University of New England will mark King’s visit Monday night with a celebration in the building where he spoke in 1964. Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday.

“It was quite an event for a tiny college,” said Jim Beaudry, 90, who was the athletic director at St. Francis in 1964. “It got you believing. For days afterward, the students in particular were so much in awe.”

That King, less than a year after his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C., would take the time to visit St. Francis surprised even the professors who invited him.

Al Poulin and David DeTurk, young and enthusiastic professors organizing the school’s annual symposium, decided if the topic was going to be civil rights, there was no better person to speak than King. Sitting at his kitchen table, DeTurk called King in Atlanta, expecting to speak to a secretary. Instead, King answered the phone and quickly accepted the invitation to visit Maine.

“He was not, in any sense of the word, a rabble rouser. The rousing part of Martin Luther King was in what he stood for, what he exemplified, what he said and what he did,” DeTurk, who has since died, said in a documentary made a decade ago by a UNE student. “He made a very lasting impression. It was an amazing and exceptional experience for our students.”

On May 7, the second day of the two-day symposium, the St. Francis campus was crawling with police officers, media from as far away as New York, students and local residents who flocked to Biddeford to hear King and other civil rights leaders speak. Admission to King’s speech cost $1.

When King arrived on campus, he asked the Rev. Clarence LaPlante, president of St. Francis, for a quiet place to collect his thoughts. LaPlante brought King to his own room in Stella Maris Hall, where the civil rights leader “sat in the window and just looked out and remained pensive,” LaPlante would later recall.

About 1,000 people packed into the small gymnasium in DeCary Hall to hear King speak on civil disobedience and the need to end segregation across the country.

(Continued on page 2)

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