SOUTH PORTLAND (AP) – Ending the disenfranchisement of convicted felons is part of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said Saturday night.

Coretta Scott King, delivering the keynote address at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Portland chapter of the NAACP, emphasized the need for political empowerment as a way to help minorities achieve gains in such areas as jobs and education.

King said that in a democracy, the right to vote should be absolute and should not, as in some states, be withheld from felons who have completed their prison sentences or remain free on probation or parole.

“Something is very wrong with laws that prevent any citizen from experiencing his or her democratic right, even when they have paid their debt to society,” she said.

King said disenfranchisement of felons contains an element of racial discrimination, citing estimates that one in four black males in six states are barred from voting because of their convictions. She said many have been convicted of drug charges for which whites are less likely to be prosecuted.

She praised Maine and Vermont as the only states which allow prison inmates to vote.

King’s half-hour speech to some 450 guests highlighted an event that attracted political leaders from Maine and beyond.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., who stopped at the dinner prior to her appearance at a John Kerry fund-raiser in Cape Elizabeth, praised the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for “doing the front-line work on behalf of civil rights and reconciliation.”

King was introduced by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who characterized the organization’s Portland chapter as “a steadfast force for justice and racial equality” and whose work has made the city a better place for all citizens, regardless of race.

Other speakers included Gov. John Baldacci, Rep. Tom Allen and Portland Mayor Nathan Smith. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, attended a reception for King.

The program included the showing of five minutes of a documentary film produced by the NAACP about its early history in Maine and Martin Luther King Jr.’s influence on the establishment of the Portland chapter.

The NAACP established a Bangor chapter in 1920 and a Portland chapter in the late 1940s. That chapter was disbanded in 1959 but was revived five years later at the height of the civil rights movement.

Its president, Gerald Talbot, went on to become the state’s first black legislator. Moderating the dinner was Talbot’s daughter, Rachel Tabot Ross, who serves as Portland’s director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs and is vice president of the Portland NAACP.

AP-ES-10-02-04 2240EDT

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