Maine Human Rights Coalition President James Varner speaks during a media-only Martin Luther King Jr. event held at the Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer. The bust to Varner's left is the only memorial to the Underground Railroad in Maine. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

It was a quiet Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Maine as rising COVID-19 cases restricted the usual heap of in-person events celebrating the civil rights icon’s life. But James Varner, 87, said that King’s message was more relevant than ever in the fraught political climate of today.

Varner — president of the Maine Human Rights Coalition and a cofounder of the Greater Bangor Branch of the NAACP — spoke from Chamberlain Freedom Park in Brewer next to a monument dedicated to the then-town’s purported role as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

He called for Mainers to spread King’s message by treating each other with respect regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or creed, and participating in community activism to fight inequality.

“Let’s turn this around,” Varner said. “Let’s be a part of Dr. King’s dream for this country: to love one another and treat one another like we want to be treated.”

The speech was for the media only, with the public not invited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cars zoomed by on State Route 9 as Varner spoke, with a few passersby briefly observing him as they walked by on a chilly, windy afternoon.

Varner — who first came to Maine as a University of Maine student in 1953 — has been involved in civil rights for decades. He said he marched alongside and worked with King and attended King’s funeral in Atlanta in 1968, one of three held after his assassination.

He compared the goals and aspirations of the civil rights movement that he participated in to the modern goals of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying that King would have supported the movement’s goals of a less racially imbalanced criminal justice system.

He addressed criticism from some conservative groups that the Black Lives Matter movement is about elevating Black people over others in the United States. It is about fixing a criminal justice system that is inherently unjust toward Black Americans, Varner said.

Calling the United States’ legal system a “broken system,” he said those differences were shown by high incarceration rates for Black people in the United States, as well as what he saw as greater targeting of Black people by police for drug crimes compared to their white counterparts.

“It doesn’t say that Black lives are more important than anybody else’s lives,” Varner said. “It just says that Black lives are as important as any other human being.”

His speech also touched on modern American political events, including the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 by supporters of President Donald Trump who were attempting to stop Congress from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s November win.

King — a man who abhorred the use of violence and based his political activism on the nonviolent resistance of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi — would be disgusted by the actions of the mob, and the resulting deaths of five people, Varner said.

“They didn’t stop [the certification], but did a lot of damage,” he said. “I’m sure Dr. Martin Luther King is rolling over in his grave over this awful event.”

Biden’s incoming presidency offers hope for the U.S. as it faces the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic consequences, Varner said.

There have been especially high rates of COVID-19 among Black Americans, who are nearly three times more likely to die from the virus than non-Hispanic whites, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

King would be especially overjoyed by the election of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will be the first Black person and the first woman to serve as vice president, Varner said.

Mainers should examine their own unconscious biases and stamp out discrimination in the United States, to help create a better future for American race relations, he said.

“Dr. King wanted us to begin to accept each other as human beings,” Varner said, “as brothers and sisters.”