WATERVILLE — Gov. Paul LePage was again in the spotlight on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, but not because of any controversy with the NAACP.

This time, he found himself center stage, dancing to African music at the 26th annual community breakfast at the Muskie Center, hosted by both Spectrum Generations and Waterville Rotary Club.

The former Waterville mayor was a reluctant performer.

Messan Jordan Benissan, a master drummer who led Colby College students in the Colby African Drumming Ensemble, invited LePage to dance. Blushing, the governor smiled and shook his head, as if to refuse.

Waterville’s new mayor, Karen Heck, took LePage by the hand and led him through the crowd to the front of the room, to applause and cheers.

“I said, ‘C’mon, let’s go dance,'” Heck said later, as LePage clapped and danced with the Colby drumming group and third-graders from George J. Mitchell School.

Despite the commotion, LePage’s appearance was more low-key than last year’s.

Shortly after being inaugurated in 2011, he declined an invitation from the Portland Branch of NAACP to attend a breakfast in that city, saying he had prior commitments. Pressed on why he was declining, LePage said at the time that he would not be held hostage by special interests. LePage famously added, “Tell ’em to kiss my butt” if they want to “play the race card.”

He declined a similar invitation by the Portland NAACP this year, saying he had committed to attending the Waterville event. As a member of the Waterville Rotary Club and a former Waterville mayor, LePage traditionally had attended the Muskie Center breakfast.

Before ceremonies started Monday, LePage said it was great seeing all his old friends and fellow Rotarians.

“Celebrating it with your friends — I think it’s appropriate,” he said.

He expanded that message later to the crowd in a short speech.

“It’s a real pleasure to be home,” he said. “We moved to Waterville in 1979. We lived here, worked here and raised our family here and I wish I could come back more often but unfortunately, I got stuck in Augusta.”

His comment drew laughter.

LePage proclaimed Jan. 16 Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, speaking briefly to the crowd, which included Rotarians, city officials, educators, children, retired people and others.

“Enjoy the day and remember community service really counts,” he said.

The Rev. Arlene Tully of Pleasant Street United Methodist Church spoke about King’s legacy and his commitment to social justice rooted in the ethic of love.

King believed that love could be the answer to the problems of humankind and that people should express love in compassionate actions toward others, but also use love to further social justice, Tully said.

“For instance, he said that helping someone fix up their substandard housing was a personal act of love, but love must also address the poverty that created the unlivable conditions,” Tully said. “It was a loving thing to sympathize with a black friend who was denied equal rights, but that support wasn’t enough without also working to change the unjust system that denied him those rights.”

King believed that love is a form of power — that love, seeking justice for all people, was very effective in the civil rights movement, she said. While some people thought love represented weakness and submission, King knew it was the ultimate position of strength, Tully said.

“Violence, force, hatred, hostility or coercion could never have achieved what love accomplished,” she said. “As Dr. King famously said, ‘Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.'”

Tully said that, by and large, the sort of love King spoke of is missing from public life today — that we live in an angry, self-interested, polarized culture.

She said she is convinced that to continue King’s work of building a just, equitable and reconciled society, everyone must reclaim the power of love to change hearts and lives, politics and policies, communities and cultures.

“Dr. King’s vision of a way of living that is rooted in the ethic of love is the philosophy that can heal our world today,” she said.

Heck said she just learned of an incident in Waterville in which someone was harassed and followed out of a store, the target of racial slurs. It is up to everyone to speak out in such situations, Heck said.

“I would just urge you to take the good feeling of this day and spread it out over 364 days, until we’re here again,” she said.

The children from George J. Mitchell School, led by school librarian Edie Keller, spoke about their individual dreams, which included the hope that people treat others better than they have ever done before.

“Protect us so that we may grow in freedom and dignity,” the children chanted together.

Rotary President Don Plourde introduced the Rev. Butch Merritt, who gave the invocation, and Rabbi Rachel Isaacs of Beth Israel Congregation, who offered the benediction. The crowd sang “Let There be Peace on Earth.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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