Editor’s Note: First in a two-part series.

One of the most grandiose buildings in Maine’s largest city is home to the Cumberland Club.

Across from the Portland Museum of Art and a few steps from Congress Square, it is also the crossroads for Maine’s most influential citizens. It boasts a guest register that’s included America’s most prominent public figures.

Maine owes much to this imposing institution, the off-hours nerve center for the state’s business and professional establishment. However, 40 years ago, it also contributed something to state culture it probably hopes is forgotten.

This was public and political interest in its long-standing practice of excluding Jews from membership.

It was 1968, when newspapers and magazines were trumpeting subjects that still command our attention. Time, for example, featured the “World Money Crisis” and Yasir Arafat.

What is also sadly relevant to today were wide reports of racial and ethnic prejudice.

Now, in the waning days of 2008, focus is on bigoted graffiti, effigies and other disturbing expressions of prejudice, like those alleged at a Standish general store. Though such isolated episodes have parallels with the Maine landscape of the late 1960s, those that drew the most attention then swirled around the influential Cumberland Club.

How it won such attention is attributed to the initially nave perceptions of a white Protestant country lawyer from Farmington. Peter Mills – my father and namesake of the present Skowhegan state senator – drove to Portland to speak on a panel about bills of interest to law enforcement to be submitted to the Legislature. Though he worked in Portland in the 1950s and early 1960s, he had been away from its landscape for many years.

At that meeting in 1968, Mills referred to what he thought was a discontinued practice: the city’s professional clubs exclusion of Jews from membership. He assumed that during his absence, the strides toward ending discrimination in much of American culture must have led Portland’s organizations to alter their exclusionary policies.

Mills’ rude awakening soon followed.

After speaking, some audience members approached him to explain the policy had continued unabated. Mills was told, for example, the Jewish director of the Portland Symphony, Arthur Lipkin, was blackballed by the Cumberland Club. Mills realized that such practices – because they were within private organizations – were also legal.

“This information bothered me terribly when I was driving home to Farmington that night,” Mills later recalled. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

Thinking led to action. Mills, who was about to serve his second term in the Maine Senate, conceived legislation to prohibit state liquor and food authorities from renewing licenses for organizations practicing racial, religious or ethnic discrimination. The bill did exempt organizations “oriented to a particular religion or which are ethnic in character,” which meant groups like the Franco-American and Knights of Columbus clubs were unaffected.

The mere sponsorship of the bill spawned interest across the state. The Portland papers followed not only the Cumberland Club saga, but also reports of discriminatory practices at the prestigious Portland Country Club and several other groups in the Portland area including both a Kiwanis and a Lions club.

They also reported the refusal of the new Episcopal bishop to join such clubs unless they changed their practices. Portland’s WCSH-TV reported some Cumberland Club members grumbled about “brown bagging” their own drinks if Mills’ proposal passed.

The Bangor Daily News, attempting to set its region apart from southern Maine, declared a spot check of its own golf clubs revealed “Eastern Maine Clubs Open to All,” though it did note two tended to cater to specific ethnic groups, one for Jews and another for gentiles.

Further north, the Aroostook Valley Country Club reported both African-American and Mexican-Americans had been among its past club champions, a feature attributed to an influx of minorities from nearby Loring Air Force Base.

The bill – with few parallels in the statutes of other states at the time – easily passed both houses of the Maine Legislature that spring and became law on Oct. l, 1969. (The same day Maine also, in a sort of egalitarian double- header, lowered the drinking age from 21 to 20, a measure since repealed.)

The law was not immediately accepted by the Cumberland Club. Moreover, it would be challenged by a powerful national interest, one of the largest fraternal organizations in the country. Thus, passing the bill was one thing.

Making it work would be another, which is the story for my next column.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

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