PORTLAND (AP) – Three Lewiston High School students discussed their efforts to fight racism amid an influx of Somali students at a ceremony Friday marking the upcoming 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional.

The students, part of more than 100 civil rights teams in schools across the state, spoke at Law Day celebration in U.S. District Court, which commemorated the Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

Ben Mendelson described how he was one of 20 students who banded together to educate the other students about civil rights issues.

“I learned that when students come together, anything can be achieved. Most of all, I learned to look at life through different lenses. Now I don’t see Somali faces. I see the faces of my friends,” he said.

Tensions grew in Lewiston in 2001 as large numbers of Somalis began moving to the city. Rumors spread among white residents that the Somalis were getting preferential treatment when it came to benefits.

A crisis erupted when then-Mayor Larry Raymond sent a letter to Somali elders warning that the influx was straining city resources.

A white supremacist group held a rally in Lewiston, but it was overshadowed by a much larger anti-racism rally held at Bates College.

Safia Nur, who came to the United States from Somalia in 1996, said she and others at Lewiston High School participated in planning for the “Many and One” rally, which drew more than 4,000 people.

“My (friend) and I talked about our friendship, and our speech moved the crowd into tears. We weren’t aiming for that, but it happened,” Nur said.

Melvin Zarr, a professor at the University of Maine School of Law, said the May 17 Brown decision was successful in making segregation illegal, but desegregation did not happen overnight.

The work continues today. He described the difference between the “court Brown” and the “aspirational Brown.”

“The court Brown achieved its objective: to remove segregation by law. It removed the imprimatur of law from segregation and brought in a new era of equality,” Zarr said. “This Brown was an unqualified success.”

The aspirational Brown is another story. And how the story ends depends on the actions of students like those from Lewiston High School. “The law is dynamic. We have to keep moving in the direction of justice,” he said.

AP-ES-04-30-04 1725EDT



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