The March that Sparked a New Era for Civil Rights in Maine
Thursday, September 05, 2013 8:15 AM
Fifty years ago last week, 100 Mainers made the journey to the nation's capital to join over 200,000 people for one of the largest mass demonstrations in US history and what would become a landmark in the American Civil Rights Movement. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was organized to push for an end to racial discrimination and economic inequality and is most often remembered for the Reverend Martin Luther King's iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.
Maine residents returning from the March on Washington on August 29, 1963 — from left, Gerald Talbot, Larry Burris, Lawrence Graham, the Rev. Valton V. Morse, Elizabeth Aldrich, Mrs. Joseph Robey and the Rev. John C. Bruce. - Photo by Don Johnson/Courtesy of the Portland Public Library, Gannett Photo Collection
For Maine Civil Rights leader Gerald Talbot, who at the time had three young children and little money, the trip to Washington almost didn't happen. That is, until the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) offered to pay his way.
"At that time, I said in my heart and my mind that this is the right thing to do," Talbot, now 81, told The Free Press last week. "In Maine we didn't have a civil rights movement. A few of us knew that we had to do something about low incomes, employment and education. We were getting together to see what we could do and then on August 28,1963, along comes the March on Washington."
1963 was a time of social upheaval in the country as civil rights activists began demanding an end to institutionalized discrimination by coordinating a series of marches and sit-ins throughout the segregated South. Eight years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott when Rosa Parks famously refused to give up her seat on the bus for a white rider, civil rights demonstrations began turning violent as non-violent marchers were jailed and attacked by whites fearing an end to the status quo.
Just two months earlier, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was murdered by a member of the White Citizen's Council in Mississippi. Less than a month after the famous march, four young black girls were killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in an act of racially motivated terrorism. Martin Luther King, then 34, had developed his reputation as a leader in the movement through his civil rights work in Montgomery, Alabama, Albany, Georgia, and Birmingham, where Police Chief Bull Connor used fire hoses and police dogs against peaceful protestors.
Portland resident Larry Burris, an early member of Maine's modern NAACP, well remembers his experience in the Jim Crow South from his days in the Navy in the 1950s.
"When I got into Alabama with my uniform on and my sea bag, I walked into the station and they said to me, 'You can't come into this part of the station,'" recalled Burris at a recent forum in Portland. "I was fighting and here to serve the people of the United States and I couldn't come into the station in my uniform?" He added, "Why did the water fountain say 'whites only' I wondered . . . how did the sewer work underground?"
Civil rights attorney Kim Matthews, now a longtime Maine resident, was a white teenager in Arlington, Virginia, when she first got involved in civil rights campaigns. Picketing segregated movie theaters, Matthews recalled facing antagonism by counter-demonstrators from the American Nazi Party, which was founded by George Lincoln Rockwell, who spent a lot of his early years in Boothbay Harbor, where his father had a house.
"Blacks were not allowed to attend any movie theater in the entire county," said Matthews. "Lincoln Rockwell had his headquarters in Arlington and they would counter picket in Nazi uniforms. Their signs would say things like, 'Don't turn this into a jungle like Washington.'"
Back in Maine
"We were just like everyone else in Maine . . . eating beans and hot dogs on Saturday nights and the boys growing up with nicknames that stuck. Mine was 'Timber,'" wrote Talbot, an eighth generation Mainer, in his 2007 book Maine's Visible Black History, co-authored with H.H. Price.
Growing up in Bangor, Talbot recalled racism as "very subtle . . . until it hits you in the face." As the book chronicles, many of the members of Bangor's tiny black community were the descendants of settlers from the Canadian Maritimes made up of Black Loyalists promised freedom for fighting alongside the British in the American Revolution, as well as Jamaican Maroons deported to Nova Scotia in 1796 and and black refugees from the War of 1812.
The immigrants, many of whom arrived in the 1860s, had come from abject poverty in Canada but found it difficult to achieve social equality in Maine, where they often faced employment and housing discrimination. Maine was "fundamentally no different from the rest of America," Talbot said. But since they only made up a small minority of the population - less than one percent - more attention was focused on the larger minority populations, the Irish and French Catholics, who were the target of aggression from the Nativist movements of the 1850s to the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.
"Racial prejudice wasn't everywhere in Maine and not all the time, but people of color knew where or when it might appear," wrote Talbot.One of the most notorious acts of racism toward Maine's black community occurred in 1912, with the forced removal of lifelong residents from Malaga Island, which was met with little public outcry at the time. One media story had portrayed the residents as a "degenerate colony." An official apology was made to the descendants of Malaga by the Maine Legislature in 2010.
In 1961 the US Commission on Civil Rights report stated that a "a considerable number of Americans, by reason of color or race are being denied equal opportunity in housing." In Maine's Visible Black History, Talbot described the humiliation of being turned down for rental housing in Portland during the 1950s and '60s. At one point Talbot recalled a landlord kicking reneging on a rental agreement after initially agreeing to rent the home to them.
"He said that several of his neighbors had told him that they didn't want Negroes in the neighborhood, so he felt that he was forced to ask us to move," wrote Talbot. "So before we moved in, we were thrown out because of the racism and discrimination and the color of our skins."
A 1965 survey by a University of Maine sociology professor reported that 76 percent of Bangor's black population reported discrimination. Another survey the same year by the Portland NAACP found widespread discrimination in Portland's housing market.
"He didn't live long, but he moved us along."
When asked what they remember about the March on Washington, people at last week's forum in Portland all mentioned the huge number of buses and the intense jubilation of the marchers. Although President Kennedy had warned march organizers against creating "an atmosphere of intimidation" - while 5,900 police officers, 2,000 National Guardsmen, and 4,000 outside soldiers stood by - the demonstrators were anything but violent.
"It was the most enthusiastic crowd I had ever seen," said Talbot. "They turned their hearts, minds and everything on."
Then there was King's speech.
"When he said, 'I have a dream,' it was like from your head to your toes round," said Burris. "He had a voice, and I do believe in my heart of hearts that he was put here for a reason. He didn't live long, but he moved us along."
But with the soaring words came a call to action.
"At the end, there were four or five things we had to do after," said Talbot. "We had to go home and tell everyone we were at the march, and we had to fight for jobs and education. And that's what most of us in that march did."
In the wake of the march, President Johnson signed the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Talbot returned to Maine to start up the modern branch of the Portland NAACP with the goal of fair housing, quality employment and education for all. Throughout the 1960s, the Portland NAACP led a number of local movements to end discrimination, such as the fair housing campaign.
A fair housing bill was initially defeated in 1963 in the Maine Legislature by an opposition led by a coalition of realtors, landlords and conservative legislators who denied that racial discrimination was an issue in Maine. They argued that you "can't legislate morality." But in spite of their opposition, a weakened version of the bill passed committee as the civil rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama, played out in living rooms across the state and the country. It was signed by Governor John Reed in 1965. In 2005, Maine voters extended this right to gays, lesbians and transsexuals.
In 1969, Maine finally banned discrimination against blacks and Jews by private clubs, which was followed up, in 1971, by the long-fought-for goal of creating the Maine Human Rights Commission. Talbot would go to court three times with housing discrimination suits and would later become the first African-American elected to Maine's Legislature, in 1972.
"As a black community, as a white community, and everyone else, we still have to get ourselves together . . ."
In the decades since the turbulent 1960s, Maine has remained one of the most rural and homogenous states in the country and has not had the kind of overt racial tensions of the larger urban areas. But at the turn of this century came a new wave of East African immigrants escaping war and oppression in their homelands.
In 2002, Lewiston Mayor Laurier T. Raymond wrote an open letter to that city's Somali community discouraging further migration because he predicted they would put too much strain on the social services of the poor post-industrial mill town. The letter was met with demonstrations opposing and supporting the mayor, including a small rally by a white supremacist group.
In the mid-2000s, civil rights groups like the NAACP and ACLU drew attention to the issue of police targeting minorities on the basis of race. While no official data exists to prove or disprove the practice, after lobbying by civil rights groups, Governor John Baldacci signed an executive order prohibiting racial profiling and spot immigration checks in 2004. In 2010 the newly formed advisory committee to the Legislature recommended requiring training for law enforcement in cultural diversity and bias-based profiling.
Nevertheless, anecdotal reports of racial profiling continue. As The Free Press reported last week, some migrant farm workers have avoided coming to Maine this summer for fear of being targeted by immigration authorities. But Maine has avoided the more reactionary anti-immigrant sentiment that has been prevalent in Southern and Western states. A bill that would have required any law enforcement officer who legally detained someone to require that person to provide proof of citizenship was withdrawn after the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kathy Chase (R-Wells), sat down with Talbot's granddaughter, current Portland NAACP President Rachel Talbot-Ross, for a talk.
"They're coming from a totally different life experience than I am, and I think that was an eye-opener; more so for me to hear that one-on-one than just reading about it by or hearing about it on the news," Chase told MPBN News at the time.
For Gerald Talbot, Martin Luther King's message was not just about ending racial discrimination, but even more about achieving economic justice, opportunity and equality for all people regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Among the original 10 demands of the marchers were the guaranteed right to vote, access to quality schools, a national minimum wage act, and a massive federal jobs program to train and place the unemployed in dignified work at decent wages. It's a dream, Talbot says, yet to be realized.
"We've still got to talk about turning that dream into a reality," said Talbot. "We have to think about education, employment, the economy, health care. And as a black community, as a white community, and everyone else, we still have to get ourselves together to do something about all of those things. It affects everyone. It's nationwide."