Students perform during the 37th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration dinner Monday at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The room exploded with applause and cheers after Nazik Adam read her untitled poem at Portland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Celebration dinner Monday night.

The King Middle School seventh-grader was one of several young people who participated in the 37th annual event attended by 670 people at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.

“Liberty and justice and justice for all besides the black women,” Adam recited, infusing each word with emotion. “You said this is not true but it’s proven, written in black ink between the red lines, all painful words included. You said we should not be here, but remember who stripped us from our freedom, cracked the whip on our backs till the blood drew from our veins, just like the Nile.”

The national MLK holiday recognizes the birthday of the late civil rights leader, who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. The theme of this year’s celebration was “The Color and Cost of Justice: 50 Years After the Death of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Launch of the Poor People’s Campaign.”

A sign language interpreter interprets Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech as it is played during the MLK Holiday Celebration dinner Monday night at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Also cheered during Monday’s dinner were nine religious leaders who were arrested in December at the Portland office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, following a sit-in to protest her support of the Republican tax bill.

“Thank you for stirring up the fires of hope for all of us,” said the Rev. Myke Johnson, pastor of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland and a leader of Moral Movement Maine.

A few speakers alluded to or mentioned President Trump in the wake of recent comments he has made that have been described as racist, divisive and anti-immigant.

State Sen. Troy Jackson gives an emotional speech at Monday night’s MLK Holiday Celebration dinner. He said, “For this country to move forward and be great, an unprecedented coalition of the white working class and people of color needs to take shape and break lineages of inequality.” Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, recalled his roots as a logger trying to get ahead in a rural white working community in northern Aroostook County.

In an emotional speech, Jackson said he was tired of seeing “good people who are frustrated” turn to a “demagogue like Trump.”

“For this country to move forward and be great, an unprecedented coalition of the white working class and people of color needs to take shape and break lineages of inequality,” Jackson said.

Among the dignitaries who spoke was U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine, who urged young people to have courage and take action in the struggle for justice.

“You gotta act. You gotta do something,” said King, an independent who served two terms as governor.

King recalled hearing the civil rights leader deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. The senator said he was on the National Mall, sitting on a tree branch, listening to the speech as it was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Sen. Angus King speaks at the dinner Monday in Portland. “It was an unbelievable moment,” he said of hearing Martin Luther King Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

“It was an unbelievable moment,” the senator said, noting that King’s words seemed to come “right from his heart.”

Monday’s keynote speaker was Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy center based in Washington, D.C., that promotes criminal justice reform to address racial disparities in the prison system and alternatives to incarceration.

Mauer noted that there are 700,000 African-Americans incarcerated today, compared to 100,000 in 1954.

Mauer said the fight to improve the criminal justice system requires that all children be treated as “our children,” reflecting King’s call to “make justice a reality for all of God’s children.”

Mauer was introduced by Andrea James, executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Woman and Girls, an organization fighting for women’s rights in the prison system.

Monday’s dinner was hosted by the NAACP branches of Maine, ACLU of Maine, Equality Maine, Maine Human Rights Commission, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, Maine Women’s Lobby and the Southern Maine Workers Center.

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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