PORTLAND — Calls to end discrimination and support gun control dominated the 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration, hosted Monday by the NAACP Portland Branch at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.
About 650 people attended the three-hour event, which coincided with the second-term inauguration of President Obama in Washington, D.C., as several speakers noted.
“He’s being sworn in with Dr. King’s Bible,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the Portland branch. “We want, we need, to mirror the strength and wisdom of the Rev. Dr. King.”
The breakfast celebration featured several musical performances and speakers recognizing the birthday of the African-American civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968 at the age of 39.
Forty-five years later, segregation and other forms of racism and discrimination persist, said the keynote speaker, Rinku Sen, president and executive director of the Applied Research Center, a national racial justice think tank.
Sen described communities where minorities and other economically disadvantaged people have little choice but to send their children to underfunded public schools, while wealthy people send their children to private schools.
Racism may be less overt than it was in King’s day, Sen said, but it still drives subconscious decisions for many people. Sen called for the destruction of the myth of separate races in favor of viewing all people as members of the human race.
“Our ancestors demand it,” she said, “our communities hope for it, and the future requires it.”
Mayor Michael Brennan noted the first gay marriages in Maine, in December, as a civil rights achievement. However, he cited the need for continued “civil disobedience” to bring an end to discrimination, homelessness and gun violence.
He noted the divergent interests of state government, especially in reviewing the Medicaid and human services budgets now before the Legislature.
“What side will we be on? Where will we stand?” Brennan said. “Democracy thrives where there is dissent.”
Brennan and other speakers also called for increased regulation of guns in response to last month’s shootings of 20 elementary school students and six educators in Newtown, Conn.
City Councilor Ed Suslovic challenged the audience to support Obama’s gun-control control efforts and contact members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
“We’ve got some work to do,” Suslovic said. “Make sure your voices are heard.”
Suslovic described the shootings in Connecticut as a senseless act of violence by a mentally ill person, and said the vast majority of people who are mentally ill are victims of violence.
Suslovic said many lawmakers who now attribute gun violence to untreated mental illness have voted to reduce public funding for mental health care in recent years.
Suslovic called for a standing ovation for Gerald Talbot, a longtime NAACP leader and former state legislator who tried to get gun control passed in Maine in the 1970s.
“We have your back this time,” Suslovic said. “You’re not alone.”
During the celebration, the NAACP recognized the recently closed Casey Family Services for more than 36 years of work for Maine families, and the Boys & Girls Club in Portland for its after-school nutrition program.
Youths participating in the breakfast celebration included Sahara Hassan, a Deering High School junior who spoke about the power of words in the Pledge of Allegiance and the Constitution’s preamble, “We the People,” which Obama highlighted in his inaugural address.
“Though our forefathers said ‘liberty and justice for all,’ they meant liberty and justice for themselves — white, land-owning men,” Hassan said.
“Women and racial minorities were the property of men, and neither women nor African Americans could vote until years after America was founded,” she said. “It took people like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. to change the meaning of ‘We the People.’ “
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: