A record 675 people attended the 37th annual Martin Luther King Jr. civil rights dinner Jan. 15 at Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.

“This is an example of the outpouring of love for Dr. King on the 50th anniversary of his death and a demonstration that the people of Maine really do want opportunities like this to come together as a community,” said event organizer Rachel Talbot Ross, a Democratic state representative from Portland and founder of the Martin Luther King Jr. Fellows Program.

“Dr. King’s message is still one that is very alive and can be applied today,” said Atia Werah, a member of the King Fellows from Waynflete School.

“Having this many people in one place with a common goal to cultivate positive change is resistance in itself,” added Saharla Farah, a King Fellow from Deering High School.

One of the largest and most diverse events in the state, the dinner was sponsored by the city of Portland, the ACLU of Maine, Equality Maine, Maine Human Rights Commission, Maine Women’s Lobby, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England and Southern Maine Workers’ Center. The dinner was a fundraiser for the King Fellows, a leadership development program for Greater Portland high school students of color.

The event theme, “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,” explored the intersection of race, economics and justice in a three-hour program that brought together members of the faith, business and arts communities.

“This gives the city a sense to reflect on what makes us great, and in my judgment, that’s our unity,” said Portland City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau.

As in past years, this event was an opportunity hear from diverse voices from around the state. U.S. Sen. Angus S. King recounted the day he heard King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” sitting up in a tree. “A Meal for Malaga” playwright Christina W. Richardson dramatized her discovery of the mixed-race community evicted from Malaga Island in midcoast Maine in 1912. And Nazik Adam, a seventh grader at King Middle School, brought the crowd to its feet with her poem about American ideals and injustice.

“Activism generates hope,” said Rev. Dr. Mykel Johnson, pastor of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church in Portland and a leader of Moral Movement Maine.

“This has been an incredible event – the passion and vision from everyone,” said keynote speaker Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, who provided a critical overview of the impact of race in criminal justice.

The heartfelt message of state Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, was a uniting moment, tying together rural and urban Mainers of all races.

“I am a rural, white working-class male and more than ever it is time to listen more than I speak,” he said. “I want to disentangle and understand the places where our stories meet – where oppressions meet.”

Jackson recounted a logger strike he witnessed in Allagash as a boy and how easily the area’s largest landowner put down that rebellion by threatening to replace all the striking workers who had no one else to go. Generations of white working-class people, he said, have turned against people of color, the only people with less power than themselves.

“I am leaving this sickness in our country behind ,and I am calling on every good-hearted member of the white working class to do the same,” Jackson said. “Battling hate has to be a bigger part of the future than it has been of the past.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at:

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