Maya Williams listened to a recording of words spoken nearly 54 years ago, a sermon that echoed through the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., the voice of the man who would soon be assassinated. They looked over their notes and circled two recurring sentences.

“Nothing has been done.”

“We shall overcome.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke those words from the pulpit on March 31, 1968, in a sermon titled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” The same words are a refrain of a poem Williams wrote in response to the sermon. Both will be part of a virtual reading Monday to honor King and reflect on his message.

“Yes, Dr. King’s legacy has created a lot of systemic change,” Williams, who was inaugurated last year as Portland’s seventh poet laureate, said. “And at the same time, there’s still so much systemic change to still work on.”

Williams, a Black multiracial person who uses the pronouns ey, they and she, first learned about King in a predominantly Black school in Maryland. They remembered watching the animated film “Our Friend, Martin.” They later attended predominantly white schools in Virginia and North Carolina, where they noticed lessons presented a sanitized version of the leader of the Civil Rights Movement. Now 26, Williams wanted this poem to confront societal problems with the nuance and boldness of King’s unabridged sermon.


“Dr. King says, ‘I say to you, our goal is freedom, and I believe we are going to get there.’ And I definitely want that, and we can’t get there on our own, and we can’t get there by being silent or being polite or being avoidant,” Williams said. “I want us to get there.”

In the sermon, King called out white people who are silent and indifferent in the face of racism. In the poem, Williams wrote about Black people who do not feel safe in Maine. King spoke of poor families he met in Mississippi and New York. Williams wrote about a homeless man in Portland and a widow in Alna.

“Nothing has been done,” King said.

“When will something be done?” the poem asks.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., preaches from the pulpit at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968. It would be his last Sunday sermon before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis. John Rous/Associated Press

The event organizers both said it is their responsibility as white people to listen to and reflect on the readings.

The Rev. Jane Field, executive director of the Maine Council of Churches, said people will hear a message that still applies half a century after it was first delivered.


“Every word of that sermon could be preached from any pulpit this Sunday, and it would be absolutely relevant and timely,” Field said.

The Rev. Nicole Diroff is the program director at the BTS Center, a nonprofit that offers theological programs. She worked with Williams on previous events and reached out to them to commission the poem. Diroff said a sermon is usually surrounded by music and prayer, and following this one with a poem felt right, even if the reading isn’t a traditional worship service.

“This isn’t soundbite stuff,” Diroff said. “It takes probably 35 to 40 minutes to hear that sermon. We think it’s important to do that in community and to try and silence distractions for one hour in the middle of the day on Martin Luther King Day and to attend to these words.”

Williams said poetry helps them reflect on the current moment and envision a path for change.

“I hope they take away the sense of urgency that’s present,” Williams said. “I hope they take away the need to be active. And for the Black people who may be present, I hope they feel heard, and I hope they are reminded to rest in order to be active.”

At the end of both sermon and poem is that phrase that is both promise and challenge.

“We shall overcome,” King said, and the poem echoes.

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