Civil rights leader John Lewis has white men to thank for the civil rights advancements Black Americans have seen, according to Maine Gov. Paul LePage.
“How about John Lewis last week, criticizing the president,” he said during an interview with Maine radio station WVOM. “You know, I will just say this: John Lewis ought to look at history. It was Abraham Lincoln that 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’s assessment is historically inaccurate, however. President Abraham Lincoln did in 1863 sign the Emancipation Proclamation and advocated for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. But according to historians, Jim Crow laws did not exist during President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, which spanned from 1869-1877. President Rutherford B. Hayes, who served as president from 1877-1881, oversaw the end of Reconstruction — and the beginning of Jim Crow laws, which remained in effect for nearly a century.
Lewis has a long history of civil rights activism. He was the youngest speaker at the march on Washington in 1963. He marched in Selma, Alabama, two years later and suffered a fractured skull. He was arrested dozens of times for his active role in civil rights. Lewis is the last surviving member of the “Big Six,” six prominent leaders during the civil rights movement.
Brenda Jones, communications director for Lewis, said the civil rights icon does not feel “the need to defend himself against spurious comments.”
“People who know America’s history know what the facts are,” Jones said. “It sounds to me like [LePage] is just trying to be mean-spirited. The facts of history refute that statement.”
Phil Bartlett, chair of the Democratic Party of Maine, in a statement slammed LePage for his “profound misunderstanding” of history, WCSH6 reported:
“Gov. LePage’s comments reflect a profound misunderstanding of history and the crucial role that Rep. John Lewis played in the struggle for civil rights. Gov. LePage should be calling upon President-Elect Trump to engage with leaders like Chellie Pingree and John Lewis rather than ratcheting up the rhetoric against those willing to stand up for their beliefs.”
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree has stated she does not plan to attend Trump’s inauguration, and LePage said she should resign.
LePage, in trying to clarify his remarks, slammed the NAACP and Blacks overall for characterizing all whites as racist and said the NAACP owes white people an apology, the Portland Press Herald reported.
“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.”
“And now they paint one brush and say all whites are racists,” he went on. “I’m sorry, we’re not.”
Lewis served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, not the NAACP, during the civil rights era, the Huffington Post reported.
State Rep. Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland), director of the Maine division of the NAACP and president of the NAACP of Portland branch, called the governor’s remarks “a painful reminder” of the continued fight for civil rights.
“The ripple effects of this insult reverberate far beyond Maine’s African American community,” Talbot Ross 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.”
The governor’s original remarks came after a feud arose between Lewis and President-elect Donald Trump over the weekend of Martin Luther King Day. After Lewis stated he did not plan to attend Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, saying he is not a “legitimate president,” Trump responded with a characteristic Twitter firestorm.