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Politics

LePage Says NAACP Should ‘Apologize to the White People’ After Flap With Civil Rights Icon

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Robert F. Bukaty
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Maine Public
Paul LePage in December.

Gov. Paul LePage has once again charged into the issue of race relations. On Tuesday morning he told a Bangor radio station Tuesday that civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis should thank Republican presidents for freeing the slaves and fighting Jim Crow laws.

The governor’s comments omitted decades of history about the Civil Rights Movement and was immediately criticized and condemned by historians and lawmakers, and parodied and mocked on social media.

LePage’s remarks on WVOM came in response to Lewis’ feud with President-elect Donald Trump. Last week Lewis said he will boycott Trump’s inauguration because he doesn’t believe he’s a legitimate president. Trump deployed his Twitter account to trash Lewis and his district in Atlanta. He also said Lewis, who was beaten by state police during the Bloody Sunday protest march from Selma in 1965, was “all talk, no action.”

Today, LePage attempted to piggyback on Trump’s criticism.

“John Lewis ought to look at history. It was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant that fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice,” LePage said.

But Dan Shea, a professor of government at Colby College, says it’s LePage who should study history more closely.

“I think it’s stunning. I think it’s preposterous that Gov. LePage would try to give a history lesson to John Lewis on the oppression of African Americans in the United States,” he says.

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Credit Cliff Owen / Associated Press
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Associated Press
John Lewis

It’s true Abraham Lincoln backed the abolition of slavery, and that Grant oversaw a Reconstruction period that afforded some blacks in the South rights as citizens. But Reconstruction was effectively undone by what Shea calls the corrupt bargain of 1876.

The bargain followed a contested election in which Hayes agreed to pull federal troops out of southern states in exchange for the presidency.

“It wasn’t until after Reconstruction ended, after the corrupt bargain of 1876, when federal troops left that Jim Crow emerged,” he says.

The absence of federal troops led to the proliferation of Jim Crow laws in the south — state and local regulations that enforced racial segregation. These laws persisted until the 1960’s.

The son of sharecroppers, Lewis grew up in the segregated south and worked worked to reverse them.

Lewis could not be reached for comment. However, his spokeswoman issued a statement, saying the congressman doesn’t need to defend himself against “spurious comments.” LePage, she said, “is just trying to be mean-spirited.”

State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP in Maine, said in a statement that the governor was attempting to revise history and that his comments reinforced the need to fight for equal rights and dignity.

“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.”

Despite the backlash, LePage doubled down. During impromptu remarks to the Portland Press Herald, he told the newspaper that the NAACP should “apologize to the white people, the people from the north for fighting their battle.”

“And now they paint one brush and say all whites are racists, I’m sorry, we’re not,” he 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 national chapter of the NAACP did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s not the first time LePage has made national headlines for racially charged comments. A year ago he said black drug dealers were coming to Maine to impregnate white girls. He reiterated those comments in August, saying he kept a binder of mugshots that proved his previous assertion that 90 percent of the people arrested were either black or Hispanic.

The statement was at odds with federal drug arrest data. It also contradicted the governor’s own collection of mugshots. After reporters requested the binder, it was discovered that 60 percent of the collected mugshots were of white defendants.

The latest controversy comes as 35 Democratic members of Congress have said they will not attend Trump’s inauguration. 1st District U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree is among them. She announced her decision during Monday’s Martin Luther King Day annual dinner.

“Out of respect for so many people who were insulted or belittled during this campaign, who fear what comes next and would like to see all of us in Congress roll up our sleeves, get to work — not celebrate — I’ll be staying right here in Maine,” she said.

Pingree’s decision was cheered by the crowd, as were her statements about standing in solidarity with Lewis. But LePage also had words for Pingree when he called into WVOM today.

“Chellie Pingree, if she won’t attend on Friday, I would advise her to resign,” he said.

That’s not happening, Pingree said. She said the governor is free to criticize her, but it’s not OK to disparage Lewis.

“I’m not surprised the governor would take me on, but again, I think it’s very insulting to take on John Lewis. You shouldn’t be trying to give him a lesson in civil rights history or anything else,” she said.

Pingree’s Twitter account later tweeted a photo of Lewis as he was being beaten and arrested by state police in 1965. The Georgia congressman was arrested more than 40 times during the Civil Rights Movement.