Martin Luther King Jr. will be written about and commemorated by millions of people around the world today, and rightly so, but I thought I’d take a different route to honor his legacy.
Following events like the peaceful protests in the south, and the March on Washington- and stoked by King’s assassination, among other tragedies during the iconic era- activists across the nation were inspired to continue fighting for racial justice and equal rights.
There were several Mainers willing to answer the call back in those days, and I’ve had the privilege of getting to know one of them over the past several years.
Gerald Talbot is a familiar name to anyone involved in the civil rights movement in Maine, or to people with a knowledge of the history of Maine politics. He is one of the most important and prominent people to advocate for the advancement of equal rights in Maine, and is the patriarch of one of the most influential families in the fight for racial justice that the state has ever seen.
Talbot was born in 1931 to Arvella and W. Edgerton Talbot in Bangor. He was the oldest of five children, and was the eighth generation of his family to be born in Maine.
He went on to attend Bangor High School, and recalls the neighborhood that he grew up in as racially and economically diverse, but he remembers it being a fair, just, safe place to grow up.
After high school, Talbot would serve in the Army before marrying Anita Cummings and starting a family in Portland. Discrimination proved to be a real hurdle for them in finding housing in Maine’s largest city, but eventually they found jobs and a place to call home and raise their four daughters.
Spurred in part by the racial tensions in Portland, Talbot participated in marches, rallies, and voter registration drives throughout Maine, Washington D.C., Mississippi, and other places in the south.
He was one of several Mainers to take part in the March on Washington in 1963, which is best remembered for the “I Have a Dream” speech given by Martin Luther King Jr. at the National Mall that day.
Following the March on Washington, Talbot was elected as the first president of the NAACP in Portland in 1964, and was a leading advocate in the passing of the Maine Fair Housing Bill and the Maine Human Rights Act during his three term tenure.
In 1968, Maine Governor Kenneth Curtis appointed Talbot to a Human Rights task force.
Following his service on the Human Rights task forse, Talbot was elected as the first African American legislator in the State of Maine in 1972, where he would serve three terms.
Among his accomplishments as a State Representative, Talbot introduced bills and conversations on issues such as gun control, the treatment of migrant workers, tribal sovereignty, fair housing, and creating a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr..
He also sponsored Maine’s first gay rights legislation and had the word “nigger” removed from all maps and geographical designations in Maine.
He toured the state with an immense collection of historic African American artifacts, visiting hundreds of schools, churches, synagogues, businesses, organizations, and clubs to share it with the people of Maine.
After he finished touring with his collection, Talbot donated it to the University of Southern Maine, and it came to be known as “The Gerald E. Talbot Collection.” The donation inspired the creation of the Maine Collection and the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity, and his collection is now the foundation of the African American Collection of Maine.
In 1995, Talbot was given an honorary Doctor in Humane Letters degree from the University of Southern Maine. USM also dedicated an auditorium in his name, which is the only public space named after an African American in the state of Maine.
In 2006, Talbot co-authored a book with H.H. Price entitled, Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People.
Here’s an excerpt from the book regarding housing discrimination in Portland:
“(The landlord) said that several of his neighbors had told him that they didn’t want Negroes in the neighborhood, so he felt that he was forced to ask us to move. So before we moved in, we were thrown out because of the racism and discrimination and the color of our skins.”
It’s disappointing that- after all the blood, sweat, and tears people like Gerald Talbot have put in to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and fulfill his mission- we are still faced with rampant systematic racism in America.
But that doesn’t diminish the work done or lives lost over the struggle for racial equality and justice. Rather, it should serve as motivation to continue the fight that so many millions of Americans have fought ever since our European descendants first landed on this continent.
Quoting from Americans Who Tell the Truth:
“Gerald E. Talbot has made significant and lasting social, economic and political contributions to the people of Maine and to this nation. His strong moral character coupled with an unwavering commitment to human rights and love for family has given us an American who courageously tells the truth and a champion for equality, justice and peace.”