BIDDEFORD — Well-known political activist Angela Davis spoke to a packed room Wednesday at University of New England.

Davis was at the campus as part of the college’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, held to commemorate King’s 1964 visit to St. Francis College, the predecessor of UNE.

With the room at the Harold Alfond Sports Forum filled to capacity, the college set up an impromptu live screening in another room for the overflow crowd. The event also was broadcast live in Portland.

UNE President James Herbert said UNE was deeply honored to have Davis as a guest.

“It is such a pleasure to host such a pivotal figure in African-American history here at UNE,” Hebert said.

Davis told the audience that when people in our country observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they are not only celebrating the spirit of the civil rights movement, but also the declaration of King’s birthday as an official holiday after a very long struggle.

Davis said the first bill to observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day was submitted in 1968, the year King was assassinated. It wasn’t until 1983 that a bill was signed, with the first celebration in 1986 and not until 2000 that all states observed the holiday, she said.

“There was a time when it actually seemed unlikely that we would ever get to set aside a day reflect on and pay tribute to Dr. King and to all of those who fought a sustained battle to end racial segregation during our country’s 20th century freedom movement,” she said.

Davis, 74, is a college professor and author in addition to being an activist. Davis has conducted research on numerous issues related to race, gender and imprisonment and in recent years the focus of much of her work has been the range of social problems associated with incarceration and the generalized criminalization of those communities that are most affected by poverty and racial discrimination. Davis draws upon her own experiences in the early 1970s spending eighteen months in jail and on trial after being placed on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List.”

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute announced in September that it would be bestowing Davis with the Fred L. Shuttlesworth Human Rights Award and in January rescinded the award after the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center wrote to the civil rights center asking it to reconsider its decision. Davis said she was told that the decision was based on her support for justice for Palestine.

“I keep asking myself, how is it that I always end up in the center of major controversies like this,” Davis said. “But I will say that this is a very exciting moment, because so many have spoken out against the position of the board of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.”

Davis criticized the institute’s board, but said she didn’t want to say anything construed as opposition to the institute, as her mother had volunteered at the organization for many years, and her former Sunday school teacher had been one of its founders.

She said she has received numerous letters and statements of support, including many from Jewish organizations.

She said it was “an exciting moment” because many recognize, as King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Davis spoke of a visit to Palestine and the segregation between people of Arab and people of Jewish descent.

“I was shocked. There were streets that Palestinians were not allowed to walk down. It reminded me of the Jim Crow South,” she said.

Davis said the idea of democracy in Palestine needs to be revised and there needs to be a system of government that treats all people with respect and dignity.

Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 780-9015 or at:

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