ORONO, Maine — Though it isn’t unusual today to see Mainers of French descent holding prominent positions in such arenas as politics, education, the law and the arts, that hasn’t always been the case.

For centuries, Maine’s residents of Acadian and Quebecois descent were treated as second-class citizens, ridiculed for their speech and locked out of educational, political and employment opportunities.

That, however, began to change in the early 1970s, thanks in part to a movement born on the University of Maine campus.

At that time, a group of Franco students, community members and others lobbied UM administrators on behalf of the state’s Franco-American population, whose experience, history and contributions had been ignored, despite the fact Mainers of French descent comprise about a third of the state’s population.

Over the years, Franco-Americans persisted, continuing to make their presence known. As a result, the campus now has a Franco-American Center and a Franco-American studies program. Today, many professors — as well as the dean of the modern languages department and the University of Maine System chancellor — are of Franco stock.

Another sign of the changing times came Tuesday, when Rumford native and Portland lawyer Severin Beliveau, one of Maine’s most influential Francos, delivered the second annual Distinguished Presidential Lecture at the invitation of President Robert Kennedy.

Kennedy also named Beliveau UM’s Distinguished Professor of Franco-American Studies, making him among fewer than half a dozen Mainers to achieve distinguished professor status.

“Our Franco culture and our Franco heritage are integral to what our state is, what it has been and what it will be in the future,” Kennedy said in his welcome remarks.

“It’s worth celebrating and it’s worth understanding its current and historical context. … People like Severin — and he is certainly the best example I can think of — are helping us effect the understanding so we can appreciate the research in supporting efforts to enhance and celebrate our Franco communities and culture.”

In his address “Maine’s French Reality,” Beliveau recapped key points in Franco-American history, from the British expulsion of the Acadians from Canada in 1755 and the mass exodus of Quebecois to New England in the late 1800s to the 1919 state law banning the use of French in Maine’s public schools — a law that wasn’t repealed until 1969.

In an address peppered with French phrases and expressions, Beliveau spoke of how the Ku Klux Klan targeted Francos, burning crosses in front of their homes from the 1930s to as recently as the 1960s.

He also shared the experiences of his own family, including those of his father, Albert Beliveau, whom Beliveau credited with instilling in him his pride in his French heritage. Despite dropping out of school at the age of 13, Albert Beliveau went on to law school at the age of 22. He also went on to become the first Mainer of French-Canadian descent to be appointed to the state’s superior and supreme judicial courts.

“A sign of the dramatic and the significant change of the Franco presence in Maine [is that] they’re visible, they’re verbal, they’ve developed a sense of pride and accomplishment that didn’t exist 20 years ago,” Beliveau said. “We’ve come a long way. Now it’s up to us to capitalize on it.”

Several of the Franco-American leaders in the audience were inspired by Beliveau’s address.

“We’re turning a corner here,” said Franco-American Center Director Yvon Labbe. When he became involved in the movement to gain respect for Mainers of French descent almost four decades ago, the university’s administration “generally looked at Francos as a problem to resolve.” Today, he said, “they are seen as an opportunity for the university that will turn into an opportunity for us.”

Tony Brinkley, a Franco-American Center faculty associate, added: “President Kennedy and Severin agreed that the University of Maine [should be] the university of choice for all of the people of Maine, and central to its mission is Maine’s French reality.”

Making the drive to Orono from Frenchville, in northern Maine’s St. John Valley, were Rosaire and Judy Paradis of Frenchville, both of whom have served in the Maine Legislature.

“He’s never forgotten where he came from,” Judy Paradis said of Beliveau. “He’s done so much behind the scenes to advance the Franco cause. He’s made it and now he’s looking back and extending his hand to help the rest of us make it, too.”

According to a brief biography provided by the university, Beliveau, a founding partner of the Portland-based law firm Preti Flaherty, has done a great deal to preserve and enhance the state’s Franco culture, work that has earned him the French Legion of Honor Award.

Beliveau also has served as honorary consul of France in Maine, president of the American Association of the Forum Francophone des Affaires and French consular agent for the state of Maine.