Portland’s 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. celebration dinner was one for the history books, with 745 people sitting down to a four-hour dinner with three sets of panelists discussing “Race, Sovereignty & Maine at 200 years.”

Dinner at Holiday Inn by the Bay on Jan. 20 opened with a moment of silence for “those who have endured violence,” setting the tone for a far-ranging and rather free-form examination of racial issues in Maine.

“This year, what we thought we needed was a reality check,” said Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland. “We are here to honor the life and legacy of Dr. King, and we want this to be, in the spirit of Dr. King, a conversation.”

To “break down barriers,” she said, there would be no keynote speaker, no head table and no advertising. More surprising: Half the tickets were complimentary, thanks to sponsors and donations made by people when they bought their tickets online. Parking was included, and childcare was provided by AmeriCorps alums.

“When you talk about power, you have to walk the walk,” said Mufalo Chitam, executive director of Maine Immigrants’ Rights Coalition. “To do that within this event is brave.”

Panelists included historian Kate McMahon, economist Darren Ranco, economic policy analyst James Myall, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana, ACLU of Maine Executive Director Alison Beyea, Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis and politicians, clergy and student activists.

“Dirigo, ‘we lead,’ ” said Rep. Craig Hickman of Winthrop. “That’s what we do in Maine, and this is leadership. How can you know where to go if you don’t know where you’ve been and where you are?”

Carolyn Brady, who had just concluded her reign as the first black Miss Maine, said, “I’ve met so many people who have an impact in their own ways, and this event let me see it as a collective.”

Amy Paradysz is freelance writer and photographer based in Scarborough. She can be reached at [email protected]

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