PORTLAND — Former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who served Maine as a U.S. representative from the 2nd Congressional District and later as a U.S. senator, on Monday urged a crowd of more than 700 to take action as he headlined the city’s 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast.

“You and I were never meant just to be, we were meant to do. I think each and every one of us has a call to action,” he said at the breakfast, which was sponsored by the NAACP Portland Branch and held at Holiday Inn by the Bay.

Citing racial disparities in levels of poverty, incarceration, hunger and access to health care, Cohen said the country has not fully realized the vision of slain civil rights leader King.

“Take Dr. King’s life, the life he sacrificed, as (an example) to say, ‘We need justice to roll down like water,'” he said.

Cohen, who led the Defense Department from 1997-2001 after serving in Congress for 24 years, is the son of a Jewish immigrant who settled in Bangor. On Monday, he said he felt a “a little tinge of discrimination” while growing up in Maine.

He described how a fan at a Little League game in which he played threw a beer can at him, shouting, “send the Jew-boy home.” As a Bowdoin College student, Cohen said, he was refused a job at an oceanfront resort because its owners didn’t like Jews.

“That’s nothing compared to what people of color have endured,” he said. “But it gave me a sense of what discrimination felt like.”

He also recounted the experiences of his wife, former Boston journalist Janet Langhart, who is black. Langhart and Cohen are the authors of “Love in Black and White,” a memoir on race and religion.

Cohen explained that his wife came to know and support King after accidentally spilling a soft drink on him at a civil rights rally, then mourned him after he was assassinated in 1968.

“Much has changed since 1968, we can see it,” Cohen said. But he suggested that if King were alive today, he might criticize that even the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, has been unable to correct racial and social injustice.

Cohen quoted Obama’s remark – “this could have been my son” – on the racially divisive shooting death of a black Florida teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2012.

“The irony is, the most powerful black man in the country, maybe even the world, can’t speak out on racial inequality,” Cohen said. “Even as mild as that (remark) was, he was pilloried.”

Cohen urged breakfast-goers, who included city officials and a variety of community and business leaders, to boycott places with poor records of race relations. He said the public should refuse to vacation in the nine states, most of which are in the South, that were freed last year by the Supreme Court from complying with portions of the Voting Rights Act, a landmark piece of civil rights legislation passed in 1965.

“It’s time for all of us to use what power we can to make a difference,” Cohen said.

Cohen and other speakers also discussed the revolutionary impact of recently deceased South African President Nelson Mandela, and noted that 2014 marks three significant semicentennials: the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act, of King’s only visit to Maine, and of the founding of the NAACP Portland Branch.

The branch’s president, Rachel Talbot Ross, presented its Community Leadership Award to Homeless Voices for Justice, an advocacy group that works closely with Preble Street on issues related to homelessness and social justice.

“These are (advocates) who understand what it means to work to make change, to make the world a better place,” she said. “They work for all of us.”

Ross presented another Leadership Award to the University of New England, whose Biddeford campus, then known as St. Francis College, was the site of a civil rights symposium where King spoke in May 1964. On Monday evening, the university was scheduled to unveil a permanent campus exhibit, “I Have a Dream,” which celebrates King and his visit.

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

Sidebar Elements

Former Defense Secretary William Cohen, who served Maine as a U.S. senator and a U.S. representative, mingles before taking the stage at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Portland on Monday.

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