Why Maine's Governor Thinks Civil Rights Leader John Lewis Should Thank White Men

by | January 19, 2017 AT 1:10 PM

By Scott Thistle

Maine's Republican 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.

"I will just say this: John Lewis ought to look at history," LePage 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 criticism was aimed at U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights leader and Democratic member of Congress from Georgia who called Donald Trump an "illegitimate president" and said he would not attend the inauguration. Trump answered Lewis on Twitter, saying Lewis was all talk and no action.

The feud prompted 42 Democratic members of Congress so far, including Maine's Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, to boycott the inauguration events in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

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. LePage said he knows many Maine families who had ancestors who fought in the Civil War.

"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 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 in the U.S. came before and during the Civil War to end the slave trade and free slaves. The 13th Amendment, passed in 1865, abolished slavery.

Lewis is considered a civil rights icon who worked closely with the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to fight Jim Crow laws that discriminated against blacks in the South. He is the last of the "Big 6" civil rights leaders of the 1960s still alive.

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."

Gen. Ulysses S. 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 the war, 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 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was enacted. As one of the original Freedom Riders and chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis played a key role in agitating to end segregation, including being beaten by police and arrested over 40 times.

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 laws.

"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.

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 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.

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 before.

In August, national media descended on Maine after LePage said he kept a binder of booking mugshots on drug arrests in Maine that showed 90 percent of those arrested for trafficking drugs in Maine 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, with only about 40 percent of the mugshots showing people of color and 60 percent showing 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 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 the inauguration out of 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 had followed the U.S. Constitution and was a demonstration of the peaceful transfer of power that the American government has long enjoyed.

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 on Tuesday said LePage was free to criticize her and others but his criticism of Lewis was uncalled for and inappropriate. In a statement, she likened LePage to Trump saying he 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 on Friday.

(c)2017 the Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine)