PORTLAND, Maine — In a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event that carried heavy political undertones, former Defense Secretary William Cohen told attendees they should consider boycotting states with poor civil rights records and “do good things on behalf of our fellow man.”

Cohen, the keynote speaker at the 33rd annual Portland breakfast honoring the slain civil rights leader, shared memories of discrimination he felt and witnessed growing up in Bangor as a half-Jewish boy with black friends. The Republican statesman also said that while Democratic U.S. President Barack Obama hasn’t done enough to fight for racial equality, he’s largely prevented from being more outspoken because of public backlash when he is.

Cohen, whose father was Jewish, said that while pitching in a Little League game as a youngster, a fan once threw a beer can at him and yelled, “Send the Jew-boy home.” He later discovered he couldn’t get a job at a seaside resort because the owners didn’t like Jews, he said.

“That’s nothing compared to what people of color have endured,” the former U.S. senator admitted, “but it gave me a sense of what discrimination felt like.”

The multifaceted, nearly four-hour event memorialized the late South African human rights advocate and President Nelson Mandela and commemorated several 50th anniversaries. In 1964, Congress passed the landmark Civil Rights Act, the Portland branch of the NAACP was founded and King was awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

That was also the year King made his first speech in Maine, when he delivered an address at a symposium at what was then St. Francis College — now the Biddeford campus of University of New England, which is holding a series of separate events to memorialize King’s visit.

Recalling King’s focus on poverty and economic inequality, other speakers during the Monday morning breakfast event — including Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and state House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham — called for those in attendance to rally behind an expansion of health care insurance for low-income Mainers and against a proposal to cut general assistance aid for immigrants.

Both issues are likely to continue to be sources of heated partisan debate in Augusta as the current legislative session plays out.

Robert Talbot, vice president of the NAACP Bangor branch, introduced Cohen as one in a long line of distinguished Maine politicians that also included 19th century lawmakers Thomas Brackett Reed and James Blaine, as well as more recent Sens. Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie and George Mitchell.

Cohen told the assembled morning crowd that when he grew up, “black families were accepted in Bangor, provided they kept their place.”

That place, he said, was one of “separation and inferiority. … It was an apartheid of sorts.”

While Cohen, defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, said race relations in America have come a long way since he was a youth, today’s blacks are significantly more likely to be unemployed, incarcerated and without access to health care than whites.

“By every metric you can post, blacks have fallen further and further behind their white counterparts,” said Cohen, whose wife, Janet Langhart, is black and a well-known journalist who knew and demonstrated alongside King during the civil rights movement.

“The irony is, the most powerful black man in the country — maybe even the world — can’t speak out on racial inequality,” he continued, referring to the president.

Cohen recalled when Obama stated that if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen who was unarmed when he was shot and killed nearly two years ago by a neighborhood watchman.

“Even as mild as that [comment] was, he was pilloried,” Cohen said of the president.

Cohen urged those in attendance to give politicians such as Obama the political freedom to speak out on issues of race or gender equality. He also said breakfast attendees should consider boycotting and refusing to take vacations in places with poor records on race relations, pointing in particular to the Alabama counties which sued the federal government last year and convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out significant portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“I think it’s time for all of us to use what power we can to make a difference,” he said. “It is our obligation to do good things on behalf of our fellow man.”

Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.