Former U.S. Rep. Barney Frank on Monday urged people not to squander the voting rights hard won by protesters 50 years ago.

Frank was the keynote speaker at the 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration in Portland, which was hosted by the NAACP Portland Branch and drew 650 people to the Holiday Inn by the Bay. The federal holiday recognizes the birthday of the civil rights leader, who was born on Jan. 15, 1929, in Atlanta.

In addition to King, the breakfast recognized the 50th anniversary of protest marches he led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the subsequent passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The failure to vote is a failure to engage in a way that brings about change,” said Frank, 74, a Democrat who served as U.S. representative of the 4th Congressional District in Massachusetts from 1981 to 2012. He has a home there in Newton and here in Ogunquit.

The theme of this year’s breakfast was introduced by the Rev. Jeffrey McIlwain, pastor of the Cumberland County Jail and North Star AME Zion Church in Newington, New Hampshire.

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” McIlwain said with emphasis, repeating several times a line borrowed from “Ella’s Song,” written by Bernice Johnson Reagon of the a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock.

‘WE MATTER’

Overt and subtle references were made to police killings last year of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and Staten Island, New York, and the protests that followed. Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the NAACP Portland Branch, also addressed the diverse audience in the hotel ballroom.

“We matter,” Ross said. “As simple as that may sound, it’s the heart of why we’re here. There is no us and them. There is only we.”

Ross was one of several speakers who noted the absence of Joseph Brannigan, a prominent Portland Democrat who served nearly three decades in the Maine Legislature and was a tireless advocate for the mentally ill and homeless. Brannigan died Saturday night after a long battle with cancer.

“We loved you, Joe,” Ross said, calling for a moment of silence in his honor.

Another Portland Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, was among several dignitaries who sat at the head table and gave brief speeches.

“Acceptance has to be learned,” Alfond said, noting dissension around the state, the nation and the world. The challenge was to “not make small things turn into mountains. We’re going to work on that,” Alfond said, alluding to challenges facing the current Legislature, with a Republican-led Senate and a Democratic-led House.

Portland Mayor Michael Brennan called for better understanding of people with mental illness and greater support for the diverse immigrant groups that live in Greater Portland.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree introduced Frank, noting that he volunteered as a young man in the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to register black voters in Mississippi.

DOUBLE-BARRELED ATTACK

Frank delivered a concise, humor-flecked speech that blasted Republicans who invoke the “nonexistent problem” of voter fraud to “make it harder to vote.” He vilified the U.S. Supreme Court for allowing corporations and individuals to make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, thereby diluting the influence of everyday voters.

“It’s a double-barreled attack on voting,” Frank said.

Frank also criticized Democrats who openly disdain the voting process and even remove themselves from it. He urged people to view their voting rights as a means to communicate with their elected officials.

“They don’t listen to people who don’t vote,” Frank said. He noted, “The Koch brothers love non-voters,” referring to the owners of Koch Industries, the multinational corporation that has spent millions on conservative and libertarian lobbying and election campaigns.

Frank also defended unions, pointing out that King went to Memphis, Tennessee – where he was assassinated on April 4, 1968 – to support black sanitation workers who were on strike because they were paid less than white workers.

Frank said that unions were “indispensable” to the rise of the middle class in the 20th century and that the ongoing “erosion” of those gains is tied directly to an “assault” on unions.

“Martin Luther King would have been outraged,” Frank said.