Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, the former president of the Maine NAACP Portland chapter, is among the racial justice advocates working to reactivate the branch. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — More than 1,600 people attended a symposium of racial justice workshops observing Martin Luther King Jr. day on Monday.

The online event marked the Maine NAACP’s 40th-annual holiday observance of the civil rights leader as the organization works to reactivate its dormant Portland chapter.

The Maine NAACP needs at least 100 membership inquiries to reactivate the branch, and tweeted earlier this month that it was “halfway toward that objective.”

The Portland chapter will be launched by a consortium of racial justice advocates including State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross.

Ross is part of the Maine State Prison branch of the Maine NAACP and was the president of the Portland chapter until it went dormant in 2013 after falling out of compliance with national bylaws.

On Monday, the NAACP worked with Maine Initiatives, an organization that supports social justice networks, to host its annual symposium of racial justice teach-ins and workshops.

Foster Bates, president of the NAACP’s Maine State Prison chapter branch, opened the observance with a speech lauding last summer’s Movement for Black Lives, a national racial justice uprising that was sparked by outcry following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other unarmed Black Americans.

Bates said that watching millions of Americans stand up against systemic racism was “like watching the marching band on Thanksgiving Day.”

“Tens of millions of strangers worldwide gathered to put their lives in danger to shout, ‘No Justice, No Peace’ for Black life. It was the most phenomenal and majestic moment that we will have witnessed in our lifetime,” Bates said.

The online symposium more than doubled its attendance over past Martin Luther King Jr. events, according to Maine Initiatives spokesperson Andrea Berry, which were held at a hotel event center and capped at 750 people.

Berry said the virtual format allowed more Black and Indigenous leaders to be heard.

“We’re really excited about that opportunity to highlight Black leadership in so many different areas, including criminal justice reform, prison abolition, local governments, arts and workers’ rights,” Berry said.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 and has 2,200 units and branches across the U.S.

Rose Barboza and Jerry Edwards, who maintain the directory Black-Owned Maine, advanced principles of “anti-racist economics” in a late morning workshop they led called “BIPOC Consumerism.” The duo reminded participants to support locally made products over mass-produced commercial goods, which are often made by prison laborers, disproportionately people of color, who are paid fractions of the minimum wage.

“The effects of just letting money flow where it’s naturally been flowing will continue to [support] all the economic systems that have come before, even the ones that were built on white supremacy,” Edwards said.

The duo discussed the Maine Black Business pledge, a program the organization launched with Portland Buy Local which asks participants to put 10 percent of resources or “shelf space” to local Black-owned businesses.

“Can we stop talking about Maine like there ain’t no Black people or Black businesses here? It doesn’t serve us well,” Edwards said.