Thirty years after Bates College decided to devote Martin Luther King Jr. Day to issues of racial justice instead of its ordinary class schedule, it held what its president called the college’s “first-ever, and hopefully last, fully remote” celebration to reach students scattered across the world by a raging pandemic.

President Clayton Spencer kicked off a daylong series of speeches, seminars, debates, podcasts, dances and more Monday with a call for the college community “to reflect consciously and intensively on what we owe our students and what we owe the world.”

With classes not set to resume until next month, Bates students and faculty relied on Zoom to hear historian and activist Angela Davis offer her thoughts on a range of issues to begin a day chock full of calls to action.

Lebanos Mengistu, co-president of the student body, said that by confronting the college’s history and culture students can “create a Bates that is more equitable when we leave than when we arrived.”

Activist Angela Davis spoke Monday to the Bates College community in a recorded session streamed by the Lewiston college. Video screenshot

Davis, who rose to prominence in the 1960s, said the role of educators in an age when so much information is available by picking up a cellphone is to help students “generate questions” about their lives, conditions and things “we most take for granted.”

She said it’s crucial for people to recognize that they can press for a more just world no matter what their position may be, whether as a student at Bates or a worker at Amazon.

“Wherever we are, we stand up and we fight,” said Davis, a former member of the Black Panther Party who once ran for vice president as a candidate of the U.S. Communist Party.

As a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of a number of books, the 76-year-old Birmingham, Alabama, native has never lost her passion for activism.

“I grew up as a child in the most segregated city in this country knowing that it was important to stand up against racism,” Davis said. “And I’ve done this all my life.”

She said that even though she quit the Communist Party almost three decades ago, “I still consider myself a communist with a small c,” she said, and remains undaunted in her zeal to replace a capitalist system she considers inherently racist with “socialism or communism” that she said would bring better lives to more people.

Throughout the daylong sessions tied together with the theme of “Confronting Our History; Justice for Coming Times,” speakers talked about the problems people face and the need to do better, whether it’s in showcasing the agenda of gays within Black Lives Matter activism or telling the story of Bates itself.

A session on the impact of COVID-19 on Maine’s minority groups laid bare some painful issues.

Crystal Cron, president of Presente Maine, spoke Monday of the difficulties facing the Latin community in Maine during a Zoom session streamed by Bates College in Lewiston. Video screenshot

Crystal Cron, president of Presente Maine, an advocacy group for Latin American immigrants, said the pandemic only emphasized how little most people care about those who are nearly invisible to the majority population.

She said immigrants from South and Central America she works with live in packed apartments in Portland, pile into vans early each morning and crack lobster claws in chilly work rooms for hours on end.

They couldn’t stop working despite the dangers from COVID-19, she said, because they had no options.

Hibo Omer, program director for the New Mainers Public Health Initiative, saw the same thing among Lewiston’s immigrant community.

“People kept going to work and getting COVID and bringing it back,” Omer said.

Cron, a Peruvian immigrant, said her organization has been working closely to ameliorate “the cruel reality of what they face,” providing food and a helping hand when others won’t.

She called it “exhausting and infuriating” work that’s left her “so, so tired after 45 weeks.”

Michael Kebede, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said that by summertime, the statistics showed that COVID-19 infections had reached “astronomical proportions” among Maine’s black and indigenous populations, far exceeding the rates among white Mainers.

What that showed, he said, is that “we live in a vastly unequal” society.

Kebede, who hailed the reform spirit that has stirred in the wake of the Black Lives Matter rallies, said that a new understanding of Maine’s history is needed. Instead of accepting the common, straightforward narrative that a white Maine pressed to abolish slavery, he said, people need to recognize that throughout the state’s history, racism has flourished.

He said the commonplace telling of Maine’s history “conceals a story much more bleak” about the long battle for justice that’s taken place in the Pine Tree State from the beginning – and is far from over.

“The best way to fight racism is to stand in solidarity against white supremacism,” Bates student Mengistu said.

Perla Figuereo, the other co-president of Bates’ student body, said that for black and brown people in particular, “speaking up for what you know is important.”

After watching a couple of the presentations, Lewiston Mayor Mark Cayer on Monday issued a statement saying he had never done so before.

“That was my loss,” Cayer added.

He said that a year ago, he was “an all lives matter guy” but since then he has experienced “a year of growth in so many ways. I hope this year is filled with even more growth as well. Black Lives Matter.”

Davis said the confluence of pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement is spurring more action everywhere in the nation.

Already, she said, the movement has won “one important victory against looming fascism” by defeating President Donald Trump’s reelection bid, but there is much more to do.

“We are now starting to do work that should have been 150 years ago,” David said, including pressing colleges to look into the ways they foster racism.

“We’re at a point where we can do that work about bringing about change,” Davis said.

Davis said that not everything is about the fight, though. She said it is important to bring joy into the fray.

She said black people have always had “cultural approaches that allow us to simultaneously stand up and fight and, at the same time, enjoy ourselves.”

“When I feel down and when I feel as if nothing is changing and we’re fighting the same battle over and over again, you know, I’ll put on some Nina Simone, and that completely changes my mind,” she said.

“Music has been at the very center of the history of black people,” Davis said.

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