MLK Day message: Don't wait for someone else to work for racial justice in Maine

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Jan. 17—The "fierce urgency of now" that Martin Luther King Jr. invoked in 1967 remains undiminished in the face of persistent systemic racism in Maine and efforts to restrict voting rights in many states, panelists said Monday during an MLK Day virtual event.

The State of Civil Rights in Maine was the focus of the online forum, which was hosted by the University of Maine Alumni Association and the Greater Bangor Area Branch of the NAACP.

"The issue of systemic racism is front and center," said state Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, co-chair of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations, which was established in 2019.

The virtual event was one of several public recognitions during the stormy MLK holiday, including a day of service at St. Hyacinth Catholic Church in Westbrook and a statement issued by Gov. Janet Mills.

"America was born on the promise of liberty and justice for all, a promise that we must strive to fulfill as we grapple with the ever-present realities of inequity and injustice amidst the backdrop of a pandemic that has worsened both," Mills said. "As we honor Dr. King today, let us recommit to building a state that values the lives and integrity of all people, that extends decency and respect without fail, and that provides equal opportunity and a fair shot at success for everyone."

During the nearly two-hour virtual event, Talbot Ross noted the first-time use of racial impact statements this legislative session to review several bills for how well they tackle the vestiges of racism, slavery and colonialism.

Talbot Ross spoke in favor of L.D. 1626, a bill that would amend the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980. The legislation would give the Passamaquoddy Tribe, Penobscot Nation and Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians all of the rights, privileges, powers, duties and immunities of other federally recognized Indian tribes within the United States.

The act must be amended to address the land theft and tribal genocide inflicted on Maine's native peoples, said Maulian Dana, a Penobscot leader who is tribal ambassador to the Maine Legislature and co-chair to the permanent commission. As currently written, the act ensures that Maine law treats the tribes as municipalities subject to state rule rather than sovereign nations, Dana said.

Rep. Richard Evans, M.D., D-Dover-Foxcroft, recalled that King said "justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society."

Evans said every unfair disadvantage that affects one person creates an unfair advantage for someone else. He referenced "anti-voting" legislation that's been passed or proposed in many states. Last year, at least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice. More than 440 bills with provisions to restrict voter access were introduced in 49 states.

Evans also noted systemic discrimination in other sectors, including health care, where physicians might fail to discuss costly potential treatments with low-income patients because they think they can't afford expensive medical options.

"It's going to take all of us," Evans said. "We can't have any further backsliding."

Attorney General Aaron Frey praised recent legislative efforts that aim to increase trust and transparency in Maine's criminal and social justice systems, including scrutiny of police shootings by a deadly force review panel and analysis of traffic stops to prevent racial profiling. He also spoke in favor of updating the 1980 Indian claims act.

But Frey said every Mainer can further King's legacy to work toward racial equity and social justice.

"Don't wait for someone else to do it," Frey said.