Growing up in Maine, former Secretary of Defense and U.S. Sen. William Cohen experienced prejudice because his father, who owned a bakery in Bangor, was a Russian Jewish immigrant. It didn’t matter that his mother came from Irish Protestant stock.
Cohen was called names and was denied a summer job, even though he explained that he was “only half-Jewish.”
“It taught me something about discrimination,” Cohen said Monday. “It taught me about being ‘the other.’”
Cohen, who represented Maine in Congress for 24 years, shared his views on the quest for peace, justice and equality as the keynote speaker at the 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast Celebration, hosted by the NAACP Portland Branch at the Holiday Inn by the Bay in Portland.
About 750 people attended the three-hour event, which also recognized the 50th anniversaries of the Portland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; of King’s only visit to Maine, in May 1964; of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and of King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, on Oct. 14, 1964.
Cohen attended the breakfast with his wife, Janet Langhart, an African-American author and TV personality who knew King and wrote a memoir, “Love in Black and White,” with her husband.
Cohen, a graduate of Bowdoin College and the Boston University School of Law, was defense secretary from 1997 through 2000 under President Clinton. Before that, he served in the U.S. House from 1973 to 1978 and in the Senate from 1979 to 1996.
In his keynote address, Cohen said strides have been made toward racial equality, including the fact that “there’s a black man in the White House and he’s not the butler.”
But if King were alive today, and he had a chance to speak with President Obama, Cohen imagined that he would say, “Mr. President, things are not well.”
Cohen pointed out that unemployment is twice as high among blacks, and that blacks make up more than half of the prison population, though they’re only about 13 percent of the U.S. population. He said that U.S. drug laws are racially discriminatory, and that access to health care and healthy food sources is limited in predominantly black communities.
“We have got to change, Mr. President, and you have to take the leadership,” Cohen said.
Still, Cohen acknowledged, it’s not easy for Obama to speak or act against discrimination of any kind because racial- and social-justice issues remain contentious. He recalled the controversy that erupted when Obama spoke about the death of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was shot by George Zimmerman in Florida in 2012.
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin,” the president said.
“As mild as that was, he was pilloried,” Cohen said.
Cohen urged people to take any action they can to promote justice and equality of all kinds, which would include voting with their dollars and avoiding vacations in states that discriminate.
Cohen also acknowledged several audience members, including Jim Sheppard of South Portland, who served with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II; and F. Lee Bailey, the famed, disbarred defense attorney who now lives in Yarmouth. Cohen described Bailey as “one of the most brilliant trial lawyers I have ever known.”
Cohen now lives near Washington, D.C., where he is chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group, a business consulting and lobbying firm, and a board member of CBS Corp.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the NAACP Portland Branch, which initially formed in the 1920s but had dissolved by the 1950s, according to its website. The Portland branch reformed shortly before King visited Maine in 1964, when he spoke on May 6 at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and on May 7 at St. Francis College in Biddeford, now the University of New England.
During Monday’s breakfast celebration, the Portland branch issued a formal call for opposition to a rule change sought by the LePage administration that would prevent certain immigrants from receiving General Assistance benefits.
The group also paid tribute to former South African President Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who died last month. And it gave Community Leadership Awards to Homeless Voices for Justice and the University of New England for their efforts to answer King’s call to build “the beloved community.”
Other speakers at the event were Portland Mayor Michael Brennan and Maine House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, who spoke about the increasingly global fight for justice and equality.
Berry recalled the 2003 murder of his brother-in-law, Guillermo Gaviria Correa, who was governor of the province of Antioquia, Colombia.
Gaviria Correa was a vocal advocate for nonviolence and equality at the height of Colombia’s drug wars. He was kidnapped by guerrillas during a march for reconciliation and solidarity, and was killed a year later.
“That is how my brother-in-law died, when he was just 40 years old,” Berry said.
Berry said the fight for justice and equality in Maine includes making sure that every child gets a quality education, all seniors are well cared for and no voter is turned away from the polls.
Berry quoted King on the subject, saying that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: