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Martin Luther King Jr.'s Visit to Maine Remembered, 50 Years Later
01/17/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

The approach of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday brings back strong memories for a small group of Mainers and former Maine residents. This year is the 50th anniversary of what's thought to be the slain civil rights leader's only visit to Maine, where he delivered speeches at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, and St. Francis College in Biddeford - which later became the University of New England. Tom Porter has this look back.

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is greeted as he arrives in Maine in May 1964.

In May 1964, Frederick Stoddard was a Bowdoin undergrad with medical ambitions. He was also president of Bowdoin's Political Forum, a non-partisan student organization. "The civil rights movement was the center of the news all the time at that time," he says.

Even so, says Stoddard, there was still a relative lack of awareness about it in New England, especially in Maine. So Political Forum decided to draw attention to the issue by planning a series of lectures on civil rights. They invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bayard Rustin, who organized the 1963 March on Washington.

"Even though I was very busy preparing to go to medical school, and we were all busy with examinations etcetera, we decided this would be a very worthwhile and timely thing to do at Bowdoin, and definitely in the spirit of Bowdoin's history," Stoddard says.

Stoddard - who went on to become a prominent Boston psychiatrist - says publicity for the talk generated such interest that the venue was moved from a hall on campus to the First Parish Church in Brunswick, where an overflow crowd 1,100 attended - a mix of students and townfolk.

IMG_0999As a student leader, Stoddard met Dr. King personally, and also got to introduce him to the audience on the night of May 6. King left a strong impression on the young student leader. "A very powerful man, very inspired, both by the moment as well as by the time," he says.

The following night Dr. King addressed an even bigger crowd in Biddeford. Georgette Sutton (right) was one of the 2,000 or so people crammed into the gymnasium at St. Francis College - now the University of New England.

"People were all over the place, there were cops and security," Sutton recalls. "And I said to myself, 'This is really special, something's going on here.' I didn't realize the impact that he brought to St. Francis."

Sutton is a sprightly octogenerian who still works on the telephone exchange at UNE. In 1964 she was a young mother, fully occupied with raising seven kids. She had little time for following the news, she says, and had not heard of Dr. King.

"I was born and brought up in Jay and I had never heard of the trouble that was in the world, you know," she says.

It was her husband - who was dean of Men's Affairs at St. Francis - who persuaded her to go to the lecture. She says she can recall Dr. King's speech like it was yesterday.

"He was so powerful he really didn't need a microphone, he had quite a loud voice," she says. "And there wasn't a person that moved - you could have heard a pin drop."
King -dropbox 2

"Everyone was completely enthralled," says UNE curator Cally Gurley. She's assembled a collection of photographs commemorating Dr. King's 1964 visit to Biddeford. They're on display at Leonard Hall, where King's lecture took place on May 7, 1964.

Cally Gurley: "There was this focus. When you look at pictures of people looking at him, everybody's attention was on him completely."

Tom Porter: "Now, we're standing the actual space where it took place aren't we? The building has been renovated, but in those days it was a gym, and there were 2,000 people crammed in - hard to believe - or trying to get in, some of them."

Cally Gurley: "Right. And also there were national news media here, apparently."

King - dropboxDespite the presence of the media, Gurley says she knows of no recordings of Dr. King's lecture that night. But to give an idea of what it was like, she produces a newspaper cutting of the day, quoting words from the speech.

"He said, 'The Negroes have to suffer and sacrifice a lot to be free. Great strides have been made to extend the frontiers of civil rights. Conditions are better today than they were 25 or 30 years ago, and the walls of racial segregation will gradually crumble,' - those kinds of, I think, very general messages that he must have been giving everywhere that he went."


Get information on events at Bowdoin to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Listen to an archived recording of Dr. King's Bowdoin speech.

Get information on events at UNE to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.

Photo of Georgette Sutton: Tom Porter

Other Photos:  Courtesy University of New England


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