PORTLAND — They marched down Congress Street, shouting in unison, “This is what democracy looks like,” and carrying signs with slogans such as “Enraged by LePage” and “Civility Not Division.”

About 500 people braved the cold Monday afternoon to join a Martin Luther King Jr. Day march and rally for justice on the steps of City Hall. The long-planned event was fueled by recent controversial statements from newly inaugurated Gov. Paul LePage.

Several community and church leaders delivered impassioned speeches to the gathering, including City Councilor Dory Waxman, who shared some of her father-in-law’s advice.

“What you think belongs to yourself,” Waxman said. “What you say belongs to the world.”

LePage, a Republican, made national headlines Friday when he said the NAACP could “kiss my butt” for questioning his repeated refusal to meet with the group in recent months, including invitations to the 30th anniversary King celebration dinner in Portland on Sunday and to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Orono on Monday.

LePage also called the NAACP a “special interest” and said he wouldn’t be “held hostage” by special interest groups. He made the comments while meeting with business leaders in Sanford, then participated in an anti-abortion rally in Augusta on Saturday.

Eric Smith, associate director of the Maine Council of Churches, suggested that King would encourage those slighted by LePage’s “kiss” comment to “turn the other cheek.”

“Because in this journey, none of us reaches the land of promise until we all reach it together,” Smith said. “This is true of the ninth-generation Mainer and the new immigrant. It is true for the Franco-American and the Somali-American. It is true for the governor (who was homeless for a while as a child) and for those still homeless today.”

The Rev. Allen Ewing-Merrill, pastor of HopeGateWay United Methodist Church in Portland, noted that King believed all people are children of God. He recalled King’s assertion that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and he pointed out that “each of us at times benefits from the oppression of others.”

“So today, Oh God, we praise you for risk-taking, justice-seeking, truth-speaking, dream-keeping leaders,” Ewing-Merrill said.

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis Jr., pastor of Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland, seemed to channel King in a rousing speech against hate.

“If we are to go forward today, we’ve got to go back and discover some mighty precious values that we’ve left behind,” Lewis said. “It’s wrong to hate. It has always been wrong and it will always be wrong.”

Some at the rally alluded to one of LePage’s first acts as governor, rescinding an executive order by former Gov. John Baldacci, a Democrat, that prohibited state workers, except law enforcement officers, from inquiring about a person’s immigration status.

Eda Trejo told the crowd that the response to the action has been swift among immigrants and state workers. Trejo is an El Salvadoran immigrant and a client advocate with Centro Latino Maine and Tengo Voz.

She said many clients have called her, worried that they will no longer have access to social services. When Trejo, who is a U.S. citizen, visited a government office to learn what impact the change will have, she said a worker asked about her immigration status.

“It’s not right that they ask for documentation,” Trejo said. “We need to stand together, not scared, not intimidated.”

Brianna Twofoot, field director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union, and Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP and president of the NAACP Portland Branch, showed the crowd a “welcome basket” that will be delivered to LePage and his family.

The basket contained several books about Maine’s minority and immigrant groups, along with a book titled “Speeches That Changed the World.” Ross suggested that LePage might read it to learn how language can be used for good.

LePage initially said he was unable to attend any King Day events because of prior personal and professional commitments. But he showed up Monday morning at the Waterville community King breakfast, which he attended for several years as mayor of that city.

Maine governors traditionally alternate between annual events in Portland and the Bangor area.

LePage said over the weekend that he would meet with the NAACP. No date has been set.

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]