Maine Gov. Paul LePage said Tuesday that the NAACP should apologize to white America, making the comment just hours after he weighed in on the president-elect’s Twitter beef with a black civil rights icon.
But the governor rewrote American history when he misrepresented events surrounding racial segregation in the South.
“I will just say this: John Lewis ought to look at history,” the Republican said during his weekly appearance on the George Hale and Ric Tyler Show on Bangor-based radio station WVOM. “It was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves, it was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant who fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.”
LePage’s version of history erred on two key points. Historians say that Jim Crow laws didn’t exist during the Grant administration, and that Hayes’ presidency set the stage for the creation of Jim Crow laws.
The governor’s criticism was aimed at Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader and Democratic member of Congress from Georgia, who announced Friday that he wouldn’t attend Donald Trump’s inauguration and said, “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.” Trump answered Lewis on Twitter, saying Lewis was “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
More than 50 Democratic members of Congress, including Maine’s Rep. Chellie Pingree, have said they will boycott the inauguration events Friday in Washington to protest Trump’s policies and treatment of Lewis.
LePage, later trying to clarify his references to presidents Hayes and Grant, said the NAACP was casting all white Americans as racists. It’s not clear why he referred to the NAACP in his criticism of Lewis, who was a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, not the NAACP.
“The blacks, the NAACP (paint) all white people with one brush,” LePage said. “To say that every white American is a racist is an insult. The NAACP should apologize to the white people, to the people from the North for fighting their battle.”
LePage said he mentioned Hayes and Grant because they fought to secure equal rights for blacks. He said he knows many Maine families who have ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
Listen to the governor’s interview on WVOM
“In 1964 when we were desegregating schools, there were a lot of people from the North who went down to the South, were killed for trying to help the blacks,” LePage said during an impromptu discussion with a reporter in the office of his communications director, Peter Steele. LePage went on to say that he felt all white people were being lumped together unfairly.
“And now they paint one brush and say all whites are racists. I’m sorry, we’re not,” LePage said. “Some of us are abolitionists. I’m a strong abolitionist, I’m a strong Lincoln supporter, I’m a strong Grant supporter, I’m a strong Dwight D. Eisenhower supporter, I think LBJ did the right thing – I’m all in.”
The abolitionist movement to end the slave trade and free slaves in the United States came before and during the Civil War. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, abolished slavery.
KNOWING THE FACTS OF HISTORY
Lewis, the only living member of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders of the 1960s, is considered a civil rights hero who worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight Jim Crow laws that discriminated against blacks in the South. As one of the original Freedom Riders and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was at the forefront of the effort to end segregation, a role in which he was beaten by police – he sustained a skull fracture during the march in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 – and arrested more than 40 times.
A spokeswoman for Lewis said LePage’s comments did not warrant a response.
“I don’t think (Lewis) feels the need to defend himself against spurious comments,” said Lewis’ communications director, Brenda Jones. “People who know America’s history know what the facts are. It sounds to me like (LePage) is just trying to be mean-spirited. The facts of history refute that statement.”
Grant, who was president from 1869-77, led the Republican Party in efforts to get rid of slavery and protect African-American citizenship. As a general during the Civil War and after it, he oversaw the federal government’s Reconstruction policies in the post-Civil War South to ensure voting rights for freedmen and the removal of former Confederate officials from power.
Hayes, president from 1877-81, oversaw the end of the Reconstruction era, which gave rise to the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation. Those laws remained in force until passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and it took decades of advocacy and court challenges after that to end discrimination embedded in institutions throughout the nation. Many would say that fight continues today.
Colby College history professor Dan Shea told The Associated Press that Jim Crow laws didn’t come about until after the Grant administration, and a deal that put Hayes in office led to the end of Reconstruction and set the stage for Jim Crow.
“Paul LePage is going to give John Lewis a tutorial on the history of black oppression in the United States? That’s rich,” he said.
‘A PAINFUL REMINDER’ OF INEQUALITY
State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, D-Portland, who is also president of the NAACP Portland branch and state director of the NAACP in Maine, said LePage’s comments criticizing Lewis, a day after the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, were “unfortunate.”
“Yesterday our nation came together to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and civil rights leaders, including John Lewis,” Talbot Ross said in a written statement. “It’s unfortunate the governor felt it was right to revise that history and disparage a congressman who, through his sacrifices, gave so much to ensuring our basic rights.”
Talbot Ross said LePage’s comments would have a far-reaching effect.
“The ripple effects of this insult reverberate far beyond Maine’s African-American community,” she said. “It’s a painful reminder to every person in Maine and those nationwide that the fight for equal rights and dignity continues. The NAACP remains dedicated to this fight today and tomorrow. We also welcome the opportunity to correct the governor’s historical assessment of the civil rights movement.”
LePage has a history of making controversial and racially charged statements, drawing national media attention to Maine, which has the highest percentage of non-Hispanic whites in the nation at 93.8 percent, according to the 2015 U.S. census. Nationally, 62.1 percent of the population is white.
On Tuesday, major television news networks such as NBC and CNN reported on LePage’s comments criticizing Lewis.
Racially charged statements have put LePage in the national spotlight in the past.
In August, national media descended on the state after LePage said he kept a binder of booking mugshots in Maine that showed 90 percent of those charged with trafficking drugs in the state since the previous January were either black or Hispanic. LePage then left an obscene voicemail for a Democratic state lawmaker who LePage believed had called him a racist. A Freedom of Access Act request to review the binder later showed that LePage’s estimate of 90 percent was incorrect – only about 40 percent of the mugshots showed people of color and 60 percent showed white people.
LePage’s office then repeatedly sought to explain that he was specifically referring to out-of-state heroin dealers when he described the race of those arrested, not to dealers in other drugs like methamphetamine.
LePage has not been a fan of the NAACP. In 2011, after NAACP members suggested that his decision not to attend Martin Luther King Jr. holiday ceremonies was part of a negative pattern against minorities, he responded, “Tell them to kiss my butt.”
LEPAGE ADVICE TO PINGREE: RESIGN
LePage also said during the radio appearance Tuesday that Pingree should resign if she refuses to attend the inauguration. Pingree announced Monday night that she would not attend, in solidarity with Lewis.
“For some reason, the left has become so hateful and they are trying to bully us out of believing our Constitution,” LePage said. “Chellie Pingree, if she won’t attend on Friday, I would advise her to resign.”
LePage said Trump’s election follows the U.S. Constitution and is a demonstration of the peaceful transfer of power that has been a hallmark of American democracy.
Pingree’s statement Monday said she wouldn’t attend the inauguration because Trump’s actions “go beyond any kind of reasonable debate, they threaten the constitutional values our country is based on.”
LePage said he had “no idea what she’s talking about.”
Pingree said Tuesday that LePage is free to criticize her and others, but his criticism of Lewis was uncalled for and inappropriate. In a written statement, she likened LePage to Trump saying Lewis was doing the country a complete “disservice.”
“Like Dr. King, congressman John Lewis is a civil rights hero,” Pingree said. “Denigrating the contributions he has made toward equality in our nation further divides us. We should not, and I will not, take for granted all of those who spoke up for social justice and equality when it was unpopular. That fight is never-ending, and one I will always champion.”
LePage said Trump won the election because “the American people are sick and tired of the political rhetoric that Chellie Pingree has been espousing for many years,” adding that “Chellie Pingree, Angus King – these people, these silver-tongued people, that’s what we are sick of.”
King, Maine’s independent U.S. senator and a former governor, has been critical of Trump, but said he will attend the inauguration Friday.