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MLK Celebration Marks Milestones in Maine's Civil Rights Struggle
01/20/2014   Reported By: Tom Porter

Today's annual celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. perhaps has a little more significance this year. Two-thousand fourteen marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 - the same year Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This year also has significance for Maine's civil rights struggle. Tom Porter has more.

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It marks the 50th anniversary of what's thought to be Dr. King's only visit to the Pine Tree State. It was also 50 years ago that the Portland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - the NAACP - was formally established.

But, as Robert Talbot points out, the organization first appeared in the state many years earlier. "Actually the NAACP has been in Maine since 1920," he says.

Talbot, an 8th generation Mainer in his early 70s, is vice-president of the Greater Bangor area NAACP branch. He's also the younger brother of Gerry Talbot - Maine's first African American legislator. "I wasn't here then, but I think the impetus for that was the Ku Klux Klan, which was very powerful in the state back then," he says.

In the 1920s, says Talbot, the Klan in Maine was primarily an anti-Catholic organization, opposing the large numbers of French-Canadian immigrants moving into the state. "But they didn't have much of a love for African-Americans either," he says.

Talbot says the NAACP was spurred into action again in the 1950s, when the expansion of Dow Air Force Base - now the Bangor International Airport - brought an influx of African-American military personnel to the city. Many of these black airmen had trouble finding accommodations, he says, due to the city's restrictive housing code at the time.

"Realtors had restrictions - they would list the apartment or house and say 'whites only,'" he says. "The NAACP worked with the people at Dow Air Force base to get that eradicated."

Secretary William CohenTalbot was one of the featured speakers at the 33rd annual Martin Luther King breakfast in Portland, where the keynote speaker was Talbot's hometown friend, former U.S. Defense Secretary and GOP Sen. William Cohen (left), who's also the former mayor of Bangor.

Cohen - who's half-Jewish - had his own first-hand recollection of Maine's racist past. In one story, he recalled being verbally abused as a Little League baseball pitcher. "And someone threw a beer can at me from the stands and said, 'Send the Jew-boy home,'" he recalls. "And I felt that - not the beer can - but I felt the insult."

Cohen recalls another instance a few years later when he was an undergraduate at Bowdoin.

"I had a roommate by the name of Charlie Wing," Cohen said, "and he was working down in Sebasco Estate. And I said, 'Can you get me a job for the summer?' And he said, 'No.' I said, 'Why not?' He said, 'Because the owners don't like Jews.' I said, 'I'm only half Jewish. He said, 'That's half too much.'"

Such experiences, he said, taught him a valuable lesson: "It taught me something about discrimination, about being 'the other,' - nothing compared to what people of color had to endure in this country of ours, but it made me more sensitive to the issues."

Cohen talked of the progress made since the early days of the civil rights struggle. He also called on Mainers to "re-dedicate" themselves to the work that remains to be done - a point that resonated with veteran NAACP organizer Robert Talbot of Bangor.

"We need to talk to each other," Talbot says. "We need to look beyond color, we need to look beyond gender. We need to look beyond handicap or disability. We just need to be - Americans."

Robert Talbot was interviewed by Ed Morin.

Ed Morin contributed reporting to this story.

Photo:  Ed Morin

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