WATERVILLE — The community came out to celebrate and reflect on the memory of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, with events in the city and at Colby College drawing large crowds.

About 150 people of all ages crammed into the Muskie Center early Monday morning for the 30th annual breakfast, gathering to pay tribute to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. with prayer, speech and song. In the afternoon, a standing-room-only crowd at Colby College attended the commemorative Martin Luther King Jr. lecture “The History of White People: A Conversation about Race Relations,” delivered by Princeton University history professor Nell Irvin Painter.

The sold-out breakfast, hosted by Spectrum Generations and the Waterville Rotary Club, was attended by community leaders, including Gov. Paul LePage, a former Waterville mayor who did not speak publicly during the event. Local pastors the Revs. Effie McClain and Mark Wilson led the invocation and benediction, and the Pleasant Street Methodist Church Choir sang hymns to mark the occasion.

A group of elementary school students from George Mitchell School shared their dreams for the future, including peace on Earth, equality, an end to littering and animal cruelty and having fewer homeless people in jail.

Guest speaker Allecia Reid, a psychology professor at Colby College, said at the Muskie Center breakfast that real progress toward equality and tolerance was fostered by one-on-one interactions with people of different racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds. Reid, an African-American who was born in Jamaica, moved to the area in 2013 and lives in Oakland with her family.

The Waterville area has an opportunity to invite people from more diverse backgrounds and to reach out to make sure they stay and become part of the community, Reid said.

“I often hear that people said Mainers don’t like people from away,” Reid said. “If that is true, we are going to have a hard time attracting people to move here and keeping people here who might not look like a typical Mainer.”

Reid, who completed postdoctoral research at Yale and Brown universities before taking a position at Colby, shared some of the findings of her research, focused on the health outcomes of discrimination.

One study focused on pregnant, young, mostly black and Latina women, with a mean age of 18, whose pregnancies were in the late first or early second trimester. Of the more than 600 people surveyed, 78 percent reported having been discriminated against, either by being treated with less courtesy, being given worse service, or feeling people were afraid of them, among other markers of discrimination.

Those experiences related to negative health outcomes, such as excessive weight gain, anxiety and depression and babies’ low birth weight, Reid said. Those problems can occur because discrimination activates the body’s stress response systems, producing a high blood rate and adrenaline, Reid said. Dealing with discrimination all the time makes the body’s stress response system work on overdrive.

“That’s not the way our bodies were designed to act” and can lead to poor health outcomes, Reid said.

When people live near and interact with people who are different, positive attitudes tend to be the result; while segregation produces more negative feelings, she said. Breaking down discrimination and barriers between groups depends on those personal interactions, she added.

“It is not based on boarder rhetoric in the state level or what is going on nationally,” it is about what people do with each other every day, she said.

Ann Norsworthy, sitting at one of the tables at the back of the room, said she agreed with Reid’s argument that interpersonal relationships break down barriers, suspicion and fear about other people. Norsworthy said she’s lived in Waterville since 1982 and has seen the community become more diverse over time.

“I think her points that what really makes the difference is one-on-one interaction, that’s where it starts and that’s where it grows from, are true,” Norsworthy said.

At the afternoon lecture, held at the Osgrove Auditorium at Colby College, historian Painter took a different tack, explaining how ideas of race, especially the idea of being “white” in America, have changed over time.

At the birth of ideas about racial classification in the 18th century, Irish immigrants in America were considered white and could vote, but they also were designated as an inferior race, Painter said. Later immigrants from Mediterranean and eastern Europe were thought of similarly as lesser white races, she added. But by World War I, Irish were considered to be part of a broader “Nordic” race, and attitudes changed significantly after the experience of Nazi Germany and World War II.

“When they heard how it sounded when it came from Germany, it kind of put a damper on it,” Painter said.

Until the 1940s, anthropologists broadened race into three categories — caucasoid, mongoloid and negroid, she said.

“That is the system we live with now. It is under tremendous pressure,” Painter said.

For example, the U.S. Census, which tracks race, now has multiple categories for race and ethnicity and even gives people an opportunity to write in their own categories. That puts census-based race terms in a “taxonomical meltdown,” but Painter said she was opposed to the idea of eliminating race as a concept entirely, because it is the same argument used by people who want to get rid of affirmative action or ignore the continuing negative effects of racism.

“We still need to keep race in mind,” Painter said.

Peter McGuire — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire

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