University of New England hosts civil rights icon Bettie Mae Fikes 

Bette Mae Fikes speaking at MLK Celebration 2024
The University of New England held a Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 24 to pay tribute to King’s legacy. 

The University of New England recently welcomed renowned civil rights activist Bettie Mae Fikes to the stage for its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Wednesday, Jan. 24.   

The event, “Ms. Bettie Mae Fikes: Voice of Selma,” took place at noon in Arthur P. Girard Innovation Hall on the University's Portland Campus for the Health Sciences, drawing a diverse audience from both the campus and the wider community.  

Fikes, a celebrated icon of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, was a founding member of the Freedom Singers, traveling alongside King during the Freedom Rights struggle, which is how she came to be known as “the Voice of Selma.” She was present in Selma during Bloody Sunday and witnessed the chasing down and beating of those who joined the march, including the future Congressman John Lewis.  

During the celebration, Fikes passionately emphasized the ongoing need for individuals to continue fighting for justice and equality, echoing the spirit of King's legacy.  

“Look at the legacy (King) left,” she said. “But I am standing here to tell you today, you have a legacy to leave.” 

Fikes shared her personal experiences and reflections on the significance of music in the civil rights struggle. Her performance featured a selection of songs, and she encouraged active participation among attendees.  

“It's not about a beautiful voice. It’s about the spirit,” she said. 

Andrea Paredes Santacruz, M.Ed., director of Intercultural Student Engagement, said Fikes’ presence at UNE, marked by performances at prestigious venues such as Carnegie Hall and the Library of Congress, added a profound dimension to the event.  

“It has been inspiring to hear from Bettie Mae Fikes, a living legend, here on our campus,” Paredes Santacruz said. “She captured the heart and soul of the Civil Rights Movement and infused it with celebration and undeniable spirit.” 

The annual MLK Jr. Celebration is held in honor of King’s historic 1964 visit to St. Francis College, the precursor to UNE’s Biddeford Campus, and to encourage discussion of racial equality in the 21st century. This year marks the 60th anniversary of King’s visit, which was his only such trip to Maine.