For 40 years, the NAACP in Maine has hosted a community event to honor the legacy of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The tradition will continue this year with a day-long virtual celebration.

The observance is the largest held in Maine and traditionally features a gospel concert, interfaith community dialogue, youth program and a dinner. This year, the celebration is a virtual teach-in and call-to-action that will include about two dozen sessions featuring speakers from across Maine and from a variety of organizations.

Dr. Martin Luther King in New York on April 15, 1967. Associated Press

The event was planned by a committee with 17 representatives of community justice and equity organizations, including NAACP Maine, Black POWER, Maine Youth Justice and Maine Initiatives, a progressive foundation that supports grassroots efforts to advance social, economic and environmental justice.

Monday’s event begins at 10 a.m. with four sessions, including a panel of elected leaders from Portland, South Portland and Falmouth who will talk about the response to the racial uprising in Maine last summer and their experiences with the creation of racial equity committees.

Two sessions are planned to provide multi-generational engagement in civil rights work. A children’s program at 10 a.m. presented by AmeriCorps members will give an overview of King’s life and include activities and discussions to better understand his work and how to contribute to social justice. A video hosted by Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival will include the readings, interviews and art activities.

Later in the morning, Ayesha Hall will lead an interactive workshop that will introduce the systematic approach to social emotional learning taken by Lewiston Public Schools to create a more equitable learning environment.

At noon, a session for Black, Indigenous and other people of color only will feature speakers Mariana Angelo, Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef and Hawo Mohamed. The discussion will delve into the experiences of being Black in Maine, examine ties to the civil rights movement, explore avenues for reuniting diaspora and thinking about the ways tokenization has played a part in the way Black leaders are organizing in Maine, according to event organizers.

Multiple sessions will focus on criminal justice reform. At 12:15 p.m., there will be a live reading of King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” led by leaders from Maine’s faith community.

The final session of the day at 5 p.m., “Being Black in Maine: Lived Experience and Prospects for Change,” will be a panel discussion that includes UMaine alumni and students. That event will include a special announcement about the establishment of a new civil rights speakers series.

A 6 p.m. closing ceremony will feature remarks by Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross of Portland, music by local musicians and a look to the future by members of Black POWER, a collective of local Black organizers, activists and community members promoting racial justice and social consciousness that formed last summer.

Anyone interested in attending the event can register for pay-as-you-can tickets at maineiniatives.org. Organizers do not want cost to be a barrier for people to attend some or all of the sessions.

The Maine NAACP says money raised through tickets and sponsorships will help offer honoraria to presenters and musicians and to seed a new fund to create fellowships, internships and other paid opportunities for African Americans, Latinx, Indigenous and other people of color to advance racial equity and justice in public policy.

King, who was assassinated April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee, never visited Portland, but he did speak in Brunswick and Biddeford. Over the past four decades, the city of Portland has tried multiple times to create a memorial for King.

In 2008, city officials proposed a memorial along the Bayside Trail and began to raise money before the Great Recession intervened, scuttling the fundraising effort. In 2017, the City Council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee floated the idea of changing Franklin Street’s name to honor King, but that idea met with resistance and was abandoned.

In March 2020, the Martin Luther King Memorial Selection Committee voted down a proposal for a memorial along the Bayside Trail that committee members felt did not adequately represent King and his legacy.

Committee staffer and city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin said the pandemic hit just after that vote and committee meetings were put on hold. She does not have a timeline for when the committee will resume meeting and determine its next steps. When it does begin meeting again, the committee membership will change because co-chair Jill Duson is no longer on the City Council.

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