ORONO — University of Maine President Peter Hoff on Monday said he “will hold the university community to a higher standard” and “won’t tolerate language or behavior that is demeaning to any group.”
Hoff spoke to about 350 people attending a breakfast at the Wells Conference Center celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
His remarks came three days after a white University of Maine hockey player was fined $1,000 in 3rd District Court in Bangor for leaving a message containing threats of violence and expressions of racial hatred on a black football player’s answering machine.
James Varner, president of the Greater Bangor Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, immediately after the breakfast told reporters that the fine was not adequate punishment for the crime.
Varner said that as far as the NAACP is concerned, the controversy is not over. ” going to look at the situation and evaluate what we can do from a legal perspective.”
At his inauguration last year, Hoff said he is committed to cultivating diversity on campus. He did not specifically mention the December threat and its racial overtones in his remarks Monday, but he said a story about UMaine is “10 times” more embarrassing than one about the community at large.
“People look to UMaine as a model,” he said. “It is up to us to set the pace, to lead by example to capture the prize.”
Monday’s breakfast, organized and emceed by Varner, launched UMaine’s daylong commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which also included discussions of King’s life and legacy and a candlelight vigil. This was the first year classes were canceled for the holiday.
Hoff and Varner were two of several speakers who urged that Monday not be a day of mourning, but of celebrating King’s commitment to racial equality and acknowledging that much remains to be done before that goal will be met — especially, perhaps, in a predominantly white state such as Maine.
“I am proud I can come to a group like this and be accepted, sit down and eat, and find there’s no problem,” said Lloyd George of Bangor, who is black and a Mason from Northstar Lodge 22. “Yet we go out that door and go our separate ways. If we meet on the street, we can’t look eye to eye. That’s a problem.”
George’s sense of isolation is not unjustified. Maine Attorney General Andrew Ketterer said Monday that less than 2 percent of Maine’s population is African-American.
Still, African-Americans represent the largest category of victims of hate crimes and acts of violence or threats of violence — crimes predominantly committed by white males ages 14 to 19.
Since Nov. 1, Ketterer said, five possible violations of Maine’s Civil Rights Act toward African-Americans have been filed in his office.
“It is indeed regrettable,” he said.
Regrettable, and, as far as Varner is concerned, reason for King, if he were alive today, to “point a finger at the state of Maine and say, `When are you gonna get your house in order?”‘
Monday’s breakfast at UMaine was one of several events held around the state to honor King.
Husson College in Bangor commemorated Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a noontime concert in celebration of the diversity in the Husson community.
In Portland, Yolanda King, eldest child of the slain civil rights leader, told Mainers that her father’s birthday should be “a day on for service” and not just a day off from work.
Speaking before a crowd of several hundred at an NAACP breakfast, Yolanda King said the best way to honor her father’s memory is to continue his fight against social injustice.
“While you are just one person and cannot do everything, you can do something,” King said.
The Los Angeles-based actress and activist pushed for the continued support of affirmative action programs around the country.
Gov. Angus King told the breakfast crowd that Mainers responded to this month’s crippling ice storm in a manner consistent with the teachings of Martin Luther King.
“I haven’t heard anyone ask … the color, gender or the sexual orientation of a [power company] line man,” the governor said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.