Leonard Cummings at his home in Portland on Friday Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

As an angry mob of mostly white men, including far-right militias and hate groups, mounted a violent insurrection Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol, Leonard Cummings’ failing eyes didn’t need to see the images of rioters overtaking police officers and carrying Confederate flags to know what was happening.

Cummings, 86, was glad he could only make out the blurred televised images of the mob smashing glass and breaking down doors in an effort to seize the building and stop the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential win. The scene felt all too familiar to the man whose life and civil rights activism in Portland has been inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I had a flashback occur,” Cummings said. “I didn’t have to see it. I knew what it meant. I knew I didn’t want to see it and I’m glad I didn’t have to see it.”

Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, a sociology and African-American studies professor at Colby College, said the insurrection in Washington, D.C., which also included a noose, and the threats made against election officials in Georgia have fully displayed what Black Americans have long experienced in this country. 

“America got to see the closest thing to a lynch mob that we have endured for centuries,” Gilkes, 73, said.

Racial tensions, inflamed under President Trump, have exploded into full view over the last year, beginning in May when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, by kneeling on his neck for about eight minutes as fellow officers failed to intervene. The killing prompted outrage and protests across the country, even as millions of Americans were out of work because of the coronavirus pandemic, which itself is having a disproportionate impact on people of color.


And the racial tensions helped fuel the full-blown insurrection the week before last in the nation’s capital, after two months of false claims by Trump and his allies that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Trump incited the mob, urging the crowd to march to the Capitol, show strength and fight.

The Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes gave a talk during an Ecumenical Gospel Celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in the packed Lorimer Chapel at Colby College in Waterville in 2017. David Leaming/Staff Photographer

The boiling-over of racial tensions is the backdrop of this year’s celebration of King’s birthday. And, for some, it is bringing back memories of the struggles that King faced decades ago.

Rep. Richard Evans, D-Dover-Foxcroft, who became only the fifth Black person elected to the Maine Legislature in November, said in a written statement that recent events reinforce the fact that King’s dream remains unfinished.

“We are reminded by the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol, our nation’s sacred seat of democracy, that Dr. King’s dream remains unfinished and that his movement carries on,” Evans, 73, said. “I encourage all Mainers, and all Americans, to redouble their efforts to help our nation achieve Dr. King’s dream of a more just, peaceful and equal society.”

Evans noted that King fought not only for racial equality, but also economic equality.

“As so many in our state are suffering from unemployment, poverty, and a lack of proper health care we must remember Dr. King’s words, ‘The agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and the salvation of the poor enlarges the rich,'” he said.


Gilkes, the Colby professor, said the threat faced by lawmakers during the insurrection and over the last two months is all too familiar to Black Americans.

“When I saw what was going on last week in Washington, I said, ‘Welcome to my world,'” she said recently. “When those officials in Georgia complained about all the death treats they were getting, I said, ‘Welcome to my world.’ This is what Black America has known forever.”

As the 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day approached, Gilkes said her thoughts turned to King’s final book: “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

“In a sense his posing that question in 1968 is still being answered, in terms of social change,” she said.

Tim Wilson of Portland reflects on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Saturday. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Tim Wilson, 79, said the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol “opened up a lot of old wounds for people like me.”

For him, it showed that America has not made as much progress toward racial justice as many believed and has in fact slipped backward under the Trump administration. And he’s worried that the violent uprising – which he believes is rooted in racist anger over President Barack Obama’s election in 2008 – will take years to contain.


Wilson, who was the first chairman of the Maine Human Rights Commission and is the senior advisor of the Seeds of Peace program, said the lack of progress in racial justice stems from the fact that Americans – particularly white Americans – have not fully and genuinely reckoned with the country’s racist history and instead have glossed over it, while promising that racial justice will come – eventually.

“When I’m giving speeches, I always talk about the fork in the road,” Wilson said. “There’s the easy route and there’s the hard route. If you choose the hard route, there’s going to be pain. There’s going to be things you need to do. If you take the easy route, it means you just cover it over and keep on going. Put the asphalt down and there’s no bump in the road. That’s where we are right now.”

Speeches by King reflected similar concerns decades ago. King warned in a speech at Bowdoin College in May 1964 against waiting for the passage of time to solve racism, and he addressed the dangers of moderation. Both, he said, can be used to maintain the status quo.

“The only answer we can give to this myth is time is neutral – it can be used either constructively or destructively – and it could be the forces of ill will in our nation have used time much more effectively than the forces of good will,” King said. “Somewhere along the way, we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless effort and persistent work of dedicated individuals, who are willing to be co-workers with God. And without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation. And so it is always necessary to help time and to realize the time is always right to do right.”

But among King’s sermons and soaring oratory, Wilson thinks there is a very simple and easily accessible lesson – one of character.

“The thing King wanted was character, and that part is still there,” Wilson said. “We have to deal with the character of a human being. It still goes back to individuals and how you treat the person sitting beside you – how you perceive that person as another human being.”


Gerald Talbot was inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Gerald Talbot, who was the first African American elected to the Maine Legislature in 1972, attended the 1963 March on Washington. Talbot said he was inspired by civil rights leaders, such as King and the late John Lewis, to become more active in the civil rights movement back in Portland. He went on to organize and participate in local demonstrations and marches, and helped re-establish the Portland branch of the NAACP in 1964.

“I didn’t realize how much I could be involved,” Talbot, 89, said. “After going to the march on Washington and listening to John Lewis and Martin Luther King, I came back and I was involved.”

For Talbot, King’s legacy means being tolerant and respectful of people’s differences.

“We have to live with one another,” Talbot said. “We have to be good to one another and we have to understand one another.”

Today’s civil rights movement is being led largely by the Black Lives Matter movement and its allies, which mobilized mass protests and demonstrations over the last year across the country, including in Maine. Portland’s civil rights icons see themselves in the demonstrations and calls for racial and economic justice.

“We did the very same thing in 1968, when the Black Power movement started, where people started to know their worth, know they were somebody and knew they were important,” Cummings said. “To march, on top of Martin Luther King’s funeral, that was a steppingstone.”


While learning and understanding King’s legacy is important, Cummings urged both young activists and the community at large to learn about the role Black people have played in Maine’s history. Knowing that history can better equip activists and others in the community to understand how much work it has taken to get to where we are today and how to continue that progress into the future.

For Cummings, King’s legacy was one of love.

“One of the great assets I’ve had added to my life was comments I heard from Martin Luther King when he said this: If you’re going to tell anybody about me – if you’ve got anything to say about me – just make sure you tell them I love people,” Cummings said. “That would be the highest honor I could pay to Martin Luther King, because we have been dedicated to that service ever since.”

It’s a message he hopes to impart to the next generation of civil rights leaders and their allies, as they grapple with racial divisions that the events of Jan. 6 made all too clear.

“These Black Lives Matter kids – it’s time to pick up the baton and it’s time to run your race,” Cummings said. “We gave it to you. The community gave it to you. You make it better for your children. And you make it better for your grandchildren.”

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