PORTLAND — The city is preparing to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day with gospel music, a public forum on issues of social inequality, and the traditional community-wide breakfast, where former U.S. Defense Secretary and former U.S. Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine, will speak.

The annual celebration is sponsored by the city, the NAACP Portland Branch and a host of other community organizations.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and of King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight to promote racial and social equality, branch President Rachel Talbot Ross pointed out.

“Every year we have an opportunity to reflect on Dr. King’s legacy, but this year what’s really nice is that people are coming together to provide something for every age range,” Ross said. “It feels authentic.”

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, King referred to a freedom song, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around” – and that’s also the title of a concert Friday, Jan. 17, where Portland public school choirs will join the Kenya Hall Band in selection of gospel and freedom songs.

The concert is scheduled from 7-9 p.m. in Merrill Auditorium. Tickets are available through PortTix.com at $11 each, and at $17 on the day of the show.

On Saturday, Jan. 18, members of the public can gather to discuss the relationship among race, socioeconomic status and disparities in health, access to food and education. The free, open forum, “The Silence of Inequity,” will feature speakers and breakout sessions, led by local high school and college students. The forum is scheduled to run from 1-4 p.m. in Ludcke Auditorium on the University of New England campus.

Cohen will keynote the 33rd annual King Day breakfast on Monday, Jan. 20, from 8-11 a.m. at Holiday Inn by the Bay, 88 Spring St.

Cohen led the Defense Department from 1997-2001 and served Maine for a total of 24 years as a U.S. representative from the 2nd Congressional District, and later as a U.S. senator. The son of a Jewish immigrant who settled in Bangor, he is the author of several books, including “Love in Black and White,” a memoir he wrote on race and religion with his wife, Janet Langhart, who is black.

Tickets for the breakfast are $30 each. A separate celebration for children will take place at the Children’s Museum and Theater of Maine, 142 Free St.; admission for that event is $15.

The King Day celebration also begins a year-long symposium on the Civil Rights Act, organized by the Portland Branch in coordination with area schools, colleges and others, Ross said. The symposium will include a series of educational events exploring the act and related topics such as citizenship.

Citing problems such as unequal access to health care, she said that fulfilling the intent of the act is a continual process that requires more work.

“While the 50th anniversary is a celebratory milestone, it takes more than putting laws on the books,” she said.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.

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