Newly elected Gov. Janet Mills received three standing ovations Monday evening as she ended the eight-year absence by Maine’s chief executive from the state’s largest annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

Mills addressed 680 people at the 38th annual Martin Luther King Jr. dinner at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland, organized by leaders of the NAACP in Maine.

“We must remain vigilant,” Mills said, urging listeners to promote freedom, equality and justice for all, and to fight fear and hate “in our courts, in our State House, in our U.S. Capitol, on our streets.”

“Because, as Dr. King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,'” said Mills, a Democrat, who is Maine’s first female governor and former state attorney general.

The warm reception Mills received contrasted sharply with the frosty relationship that former Gov. Paul LePage developed with NAACP leaders over the previous eight years.

LePage, a Republican, made national headlines shortly after his inauguration in January 2011, when he declined invitations to MLK events hosted by NAACP branches in Portland and Bangor.

When pressed by reporters, LePage said he wasn’t “going to be held hostage by special interests.” He added, “Tell ’em to kiss my butt” if they wanted to “play the race card.”

LePage then attended the Waterville MLK breakfast, hosted by the local Rotary Club, which he had attended in the past as mayor of that city.

Vi Va of Portland and the Sea Change Chorale sing “Up to the Mountain,” a song written by Patty Griffin and based on Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous 1968 “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.

Maine’s governors traditionally had attended MLK events hosted by either the Portland or Bangor branches of the NAACP.

LePage subsequently declined an invitation to Portland’s MLK event in 2012, and a few after that. Then organizers just stopped inviting him.

“We always wanted him here,” Rachel Talbot Ross, a Democratic state legislator and NAACP leader, said before the dinner. “It’s great to have the governor here today.”

Ross told the audience later she was grateful that Mills was “restoring the tradition that was lost for eight years, when we could not get the chief executive of this state to come and break bread with us.”

‘STARS OF LOVE’

Mills called on listeners to work to raise up all people, especially people “from away.” She remembered when King spoke at Bowdoin College in 1964, a student asked him, “What do these ideas have to do with me, a white student at a basically all-white school in a predominantly white state?”

Mills said King responded, “If your conscience stops at the border of Maine, you are less of a person than you should be, and you are as responsible for what happens in Birmingham as you are in Brunswick.”

Mills concluded with a poetic celestial reference, building on the “scintillating beauty” of “radiant stars of love and brotherhood” that King wrote about in a Birmingham jail cell, and calling to mind the star that shines at the top of the Maine state seal.

“Until every man, woman and child can see the radiant stars of love – of brotherhood and sisterhood – shining over our great state and our great country, none of us is truly free,” Mills said. “Let us work hand in hand until we can all look up to see those thousands of radiant stars, that scintillating beauty, together as a state, as a nation.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, noted a “very different” feeling in the Holiday Inn ballroom Monday night and across the state following Mills’ election, someone she described as willing to fight injustice and welcome new Mainers.

Pingree also pointed out that a record number of women and minorities had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November.

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, speaks at Portland’s Martin Luther King celebration Monday. With Maine’s governor attending the event for the first time in nine years, Talbot Ross said, “It’s great to have the governor here today.”

Pingree said she was “profoundly sorry” that federal workers continue to be affected by an extended government shutdown, which she attributed to President Trump’s focus on a divisive campaign promise to build a wall on the southern border.

IMPLICIT BIAS TRAINING

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said he was honored to speak on what would have been King’s 90th birthday.

Jackson said state legislators would be offered training sessions on racial equity, tribal-state relations and implicit biases, which are unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect a person’s understanding, actions and decisions.

Keynote speaker Naomi Walker praised the training plan, noting that implicit biases can be positive or negative, that everybody has them, and that it’s important for lawmakers to understand how they are influenced by them.

Walker is director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. She spoke of the need to address lingering inequalities for minority populations, especially in the workplace.

Gov. Janet Mills speaks with Abusana Micky Bondo, a newly elected Portland school board member, at Monday’s Martin Luther King celebration at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.

She urged support for legislation in favor of labor unions, equal pay for equal work, a $15 minimum wage, overtime for salaried employees and reparations to boost minority communities.

Opening and closing prayers were offered by Rabbi Jared Saks of Congregation Bet Ha’am, Bishop Steve Coleman of the Williams Temple, Church of God in Christ, Portland City Councilor Pious Ali and the Rev. Kenneth Lewis of Green Memorial AME Zion Church.

The overall program highlighted the importance of volunteerism and recognized people who have devoted their lives to the advancement of civil rights in Maine through community service.

The program included several performances, including a rousing rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” sung by three young girls – Prisca Danvo, Natalia Mbadu and Shy Paca – with Craig Wing on keyboards. Mbadu and Paca brought the crowd at Mills’ inauguration to its feet when they sang “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys.

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

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