PORTLAND — Kalahn Taylor-Clark recalled attending her first Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast Celebration hosted by the NAACP Portland Branch, in the 1980s.

It was an inspirational moment for a young black girl growing up in Portland, who would go on to earn a doctorate at Harvard University and become director of health policy for the National Partnership for Women and Families in Washington, D.C.

“I had never seen so many black people in one room in Maine in my entire life,” Taylor-Clark said Monday during her keynote speech at the 31st annual MLK breakfast at the Holiday Inn by the Bay.

About 600 people attended the celebration by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of what would have been the slain civil right’s leader’s 83rd birthday, on Sunday.

Taylor-Clark and other speakers at Monday’s breakfast called attention to the economic challenges facing many Americans in the fight for equity in education, jobs and health care.

“We all are now caught in this inescapable crisis,” said Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the NAACP Portland Branch. “We can get ourselves to a more perfect union.”

Mayor Michael Brennan said Mainers can do three things to further the causes of economic and social justice. He urged the audience to fight Gov. Paul LePage’s effort to balance the budget by cutting MaineCare coverage for 65,000 people.

Working to increase high school graduation rates is one of the best ways to reduce the poverty rate, Brennan said.

And he said the time has come to pass a law allowing same-sex marriage in Maine, a statement that drew strong applause.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said the country’s poverty rate is the highest it’s been in 20 years — 45 million people — and Americans in general are working harder, making less and paying more for everything from food to housing to health care.

At the same time, Pingree said, Congress argues over who should be taxed more or less and whether to discontinue unemployment benefits and other programs for people in need.

“I wish I was here with a more upbeat, positive message,” Pingree said. “This is one of the biggest fights of our lives and I’m proud to be fighting it with all of you.”

Other speakers were Nicole Witherbee, a senior associate with the John T. Gorman Foundation; Eve Alegra Raimon, a professor of African-American literature and culture at the University of Southern Maine; and Lynne Miller, a professor of educational leadership at USM.

Religious leaders who spoke included Rabbi Carolyn Braun of Temple Beth El, who prayed for a world, a nation and a state “still in need of repair.” She said MLK day isn’t a once-a-year occasion but a call to hope, courage and action every day.

Performers included Almeria Morlan, who delivered emotional scenes from “Warriors Don’t Cry,” a memoir by Melba Pattillo Beals of the 1957 battle to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

The celebration honored three people and one group for their work in promoting economic and social justice: Thesil Morlan of Waldoboro, who died Dec. 9; Thomas Sturtevant of Winthrop, who died Jan. 7; Joseph Ponte, commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections; and the staff, students and families of Lyman Moore Middle School in Portland.

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