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MLK Jr. Day to again be marked in Portland without LePage, King memorial

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MLK Jr. Day to again be marked in Portland without LePage, King memorial

PORTLAND — This year's celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the city includes gospel music, discussions of social justice and the traditional community-wide breakfast, being held for the 32nd year on Jan. 21.

Not included is Gov. Paul LePage, who for the first time was not invited to the remembrance after he declined invitations the past two years.

Another no-show: progress toward creating a King memorial in Portland, stalled for nearly three years.

"The commitment is still there by the city, but there isn't any designated financial or human resources to make (the memorial) happen," the city's equal opportunity and multicultural affairs director, Rachel Talbot Ross, said last week.

Work on the memorial dates to 2008, when a City Council task force selected a site for it along the then-planned Bayside Trail, near Wilmot Street.

In 2009, a 17-member commission was formed to come up with a design. The commission, co-chaired by Ross and Dan Skolnik, a city councilor at the time, held two public input forums. The commission then issued a Request For Qualifications to potential designers in early 2010.

Since then, the project hasn't moved forward.

The commission planned to fund the development of formal proposals from up to four designers with the help of about $10,000 that was budgeted by the city.

But given the "low response" to the RFQ and the lack of capital funds to then build the memorial, the commission decided to put the process on hold, according to Ross.

"We need funding before we can ask people for more time," she said. A fundraising campaign would be difficult to conduct or to justify amid the current economic downturn, she added.

The city would have to raise donations "on the order of $750,000" to build the memorial, according to the RFQ. The exact amount of funding would depend on the design selected.

Selection criteria, based on the public input sessions, called for a memorial that is a "place of reflection and contemplation, inspiration and action ... that instills a sense of responsible citizenship, freedom and democracy," the RFQ said.

"We did not want a statue," Ross said. "Been there, done it."

For now, the commission is inactive, but Ross said its members, all volunteers from the community, are still "energized." And she hopes the new year may bring new funding for the memorial from the city or private sources.

"(The commission members) would be ashamed if nothing ever materialized," she said.

Cities from Albany, N.Y., to Jerusalem have dedicated monuments and public spaces to King since he was assassinated April 4, 1968. In Maine, the state university at Orono opened Martin Luther King Plaza near its student union in 2008. The gathering space displays 10 quotations by King.

While King never visited Portland, he spoke in Brunswick and Biddeford in early May 1964, eight months after his historic "I Have a Dream" speech – and just days before the NAACP's Portland branch was formally established. Its first president was Ross' father, Gerald Talbot. She now holds that position.

While a Portland memorial will have to wait, the city is remembering the slain civil rights leader in other ways.

On Jan. 12, the Portland NAACP teamed with the city, Preble Street Resource Center and other local groups to hold an annual public forum on race and poverty. This year's event focused on issues of racial discrimination, access to education and homelessness.

The forum was facilitated by city high school students and drew a crowd of nearly 100 people, including other students, advocates and members of the public.

Ross said the forum's goal was "to ground (young people) in the ideology of being their brothers' and sisters' keepers."

The emphasis on youth continues this coming Saturday, Jan. 19, with the annual MLK Holiday Gospel Concert at Merrill Auditorium. The concert, which features performances by three children's singing groups, is being dedicated to the victims of the recent mass shooting in Newtown, Conn.

On Monday's holiday, Mayor Michael Brennan will join Ross, other community and religious leaders, students and the public for the city's annual breakfast celebration at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. Keynoting the event is Rinku Sen, an Indian-American author, activist and president of the Applied Research Center, a national think-tank on racial justice.

Absent that morning will be LePage, who has declined invitations to attend the NAACP's King Day breakfasts in Portland and Bangor since he became governor. In 2011, soon after being inaugurated, LePage responded to critics of his decision not to attend by saying he wasn't "going to be held hostage by special interests."

Maine governors have traditionally attended commemorations held by the two NAACP chapters.

While he eventually changed plans and attended a 2011 breakfast at a Waterville Rotary club, LePage made national headlines by saying that special interests such as the NAACP could "kiss my butt" if they wanted to "play the race card."

This year, for the first time, the organization's Portland branch refused to invite LePage.

"We made a conscious decision not to invite the governor," Ross said. "We're not going to falsify a relationship that doesn't exist."

As of Tuesday afternoon, the governor's office had not provided a response.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.