Six years after Portland’s NAACP chapter ceased to exist, community groups have stepped forward to help continue the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration that’s been a tradition in the city for nearly 40 years.

And this year’s MLK dinner, to be held Monday night at Holiday Inn By the Bay as usual, proved to be more popular than ever, selling out days before an event that previously offered tickets at the door.

The bicentennial theme of this year’s panel discussions – Race, Sovereignty and Maine at 200 Years: Where Do We Go From Here? – also connects King’s fight for racial and socioeconomic justice to the experiences of Maine’s indigenous, immigrant and underserved communities.

The 39th annual celebration was still organized by the former president of the NAACP Portland Branch, state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland. Her father, Gerald Talbot, helped to re-establish the local chapter of the civil rights group in 1964.

Gerald Talbot, front right, helps to carry a banner during a protest march through downtown Portland in 1967. Portland Press Herald/Gerald Talbot Collection

But now several other organizations are helping Talbot Ross and her family plan and pull off one of the largest social events of the year and broaden its reach and impact well beyond Monday night. They include Maine Initiatives, a progressive foundation that supports grassroots efforts to advance social, economic and environmental justice.

“There was a clear commitment from the community to make sure this important event continued,” said Philip Walsh, executive director of Maine Initiatives. “And when something needs to happen, Mainers are pretty good at making it happen.”

Maine Initiatives provided financial support and logistical assistance through staff members who have experience with event planning and communications, Walsh said. Other groups and institutions helping with this year’s dinner include the University of Southern Maine, Maine Immigrant Rights Coalition, ACLU Maine and AmeriCorps Alums, whose members are providing child care during the event.

In addition, 20 to 30 groups that share King’s vision will have tables set up to promote their efforts before the dinner. They include the Maine Senior Corps, whose members will be collecting new pairs of socks from dinner attendees for the group’s Warm Hearts, Warm Feet campaign to ensure older Mainers have warm socks this winter.

Talbot Ross said dinner organizers had sold or given out 690 tickets by last week and added several tables over the weekend, bringing the total to 735 expected attendees. Formerly a fundraiser for the NAACP, the dinner has become a break-even event, Talbot Ross said, in part because many tickets are given to people who want to attend but cannot afford a $75 ticket.

Talbot Ross declined to discuss the status of Portland’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, other than to confirm that it remains shut down. She noted that the Greater Bangor Area Branch NAACP and the University of Maine Division of Student Life would host the 2020 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration on Monday at the college in Orono, which Gov. Janet Mills plans to attend.

Mills attended the Portland celebration last year, resuming a tradition of the governor alternating between the two NAACP events that former Gov. Paul LePage had interrupted for eight years. The NAACP lists no active chapters in Maine on the national organization’s website.

Talbot Ross said broader community support for the annual MLK dinner in Portland presented an opportunity to push beyond the NAACP and recognize racial, socioeconomic and other justice issues that still challenge many Mainers.

“It is no longer acceptable to come together once a year to proselytize about Dr. King,” Talbot Ross said. “We need to act and be responsible for making his vision a reality.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in front of the United Nations during a peace parade in New York on April 15, 1967. Associated Press

This year’s theme is based on King’s fourth and final published book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” Through panel discussions grounded in history and analysis, speakers will examine the meaning of race, tribal sovereignty and the struggle for self-determination in the two centuries since Maine became a state in 1820.

“We have to tell the truth about Maine history if we’re going to move toward aspirational change,” Talbot Ross said. “This is our past and it’s our present day. We can’t start the next 200 years without asking the question, having the conversation and knowing who we are.”

Scheduled speakers include U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, Abdul Ali of Maine Youth Justice, Alison Beyea of ACLU Maine, Portland School Superintendent Xavier Botana, Crystal Cron of Presente Maine, Chief Kirk Francis of the Penobscot Nation, state Rep. Craig Hickman, D-Winthrop, James Myall of the Maine Center for Economic Policy, and Grace Valenzuela of the multilingual program in Portland schools.

Also speaking will be Kate McMahon-Ruddick, a USM alumna who is a museum specialist at the Center for the Study of Global Slavery at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Talbot Ross and Walsh acknowledged a growing awareness of deepening racial, ethnic and socioeconomic divisions across the United States and the globe.

“There’s always been an urgency and a disconnect between the ideals of equality in our founding documents and the way those ideals are reflected in our communities,” Walsh said. “This is an opportunity for those of us who want everyone to have equal opportunity to gather and celebrate the people in our community who are working toward that.”


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