Nearly 40 years after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., a woman and a black man are Democratic front-runners for president of the United States.

Many relished that accomplishment Monday during Portland’s 27th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration.

Among them was keynote speaker Susan Rice, a foreign-policy and national-security expert who has roots in Maine and is a campaign adviser to Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Rice said the candidacies of Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York offer ”a chance to move a little closer to the promised land” of equality and justice that King espoused before he was shot outside a Memphis motel room on April 4, 1968.

”It shows a tremendous amount of progress when your front-runners are an African-American man and a woman,” said the Rev. Kenneth Lewis, pastor of Green Memorial AME Zion Church in Portland.

”I didn’t think I’d see it in my lifetime,” said Leonard Cummings Sr., 73, who was president of the NAACP Portland Branch from 1976 to 1978.

About 800 people attended the gathering hosted by the NAACP Portland Branch at Holiday Inn by the Bay, including U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, Gov. John Baldacci and Mayor Edward Suslovic. After the breakfast, participants marched through downtown Portland for a ceremony at Monument Square.

Rice noted Portland’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as she looked at the crowd. She grew up outside of Maine but recalled seeing few black families when she visited her grandparents in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood as a child. ”I never dreamed I’d see a room this diverse in Maine,” she said.

Some of that diversity was represented by clergy who delivered Christian, Muslim and Jewish invocations, including Rabbi Carolyn Braun of Temple Beth El, who prayed, ”Give us the strength and determination to continue to fight against discrimination and injustice.”

Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the NAACP Portland Branch, said her group invited Rice to speak because of her Maine roots and her professional accomplishments. ”She is the embodiment of what Dr. King was trying to do,” Ross said.

Rice, 44, is a senior fellow on leave from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where she is examining the national security implications of global poverty and inequality, transnational security threats and new strategies for socially responsible corporate investment, according to her résumé.

She was assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 1997 to 2001 and worked for the National Security Council from 1993 to 1997.

Rice, who is married and has two children, has a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University, as well as a master’s degree and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University, which she attended on a Rhodes Scholarship. She was senior national security adviser for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004.

Rice said her grandparents, who moved to Portland from Jamaica in 1912, taught their children to work hard, strive for excellence and ”never let race be an obstacle or an excuse,” she said.

Rice’s four uncles attended Bowdoin College. Her mother, Lois Dickson Rice, was valedictorian of her class at Portland High School, graduated from Radcliffe College and received honorary doctorates from Bowdoin College and Brown University. She is now a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

After Rice spoke Monday, she said her address wasn’t a campaign speech for Obama, although she mentioned him a few times.

She said she believes the U.S. must reaffirm its commitment to equality, at home and abroad, to gain ground against threats such as terrorism, poverty and global warming.

”That’s where we need to go,” she said.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

[email protected]

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.