“John Lewis ought to look at history. It was Abraham Lincoln who freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant who fought the Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.” – Governor Paul LePage on WVOM Tuesday, January 17
“The blacks, the NAACP (paint) all white people with one brush. 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 to the Portland Press Herald Tuesday, January 17
Governor LePage has made plenty of infamous remarks, and although they were always terrible, I admit I used to find them more comical than upsetting. When he called a state legislator a “socialist cocksucker” for instance, it was hard not to laugh at the absurdity. When he made the comment about almost all the people arrested for dealing drugs in Maine being non-white (in the country’s whitest state), it seemed that he was just letting slip a reality of the justice system in America that most other officials were smart enough to not say out loud. When it turned out what he said was not true, that most of those arrested were in fact white, that just doubly confirmed the reality of how racial minorities are perceived when it comes to crime. Sure, it was a terrible thing to say, but it was funny that a real governor really said it, and it seemed unlikely to make anything tangibly worse than it already was.
Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but I find it much harder to laugh at the remarks LePage made on Tuesday. If his previous ham-handed comments could be chalked up to unfiltered buffoonery and were a confirmation of what we already knew he thought but hadn’t yet said, his words directed at John Lewis, the NAACP, and black people in general are, at least for me, much worse than I would have expected of him. They demonstrate a profoundly twisted understanding of not only historical events but what human rights mean more broadly.
To reiterate, LePage believes that black people should thank white people, particularly Northerners, for fighting for their rights and apologize for calling white people racist. That belief, quite simply, fundamentally violates a modern understanding of humanity, wherein individuals are endowed—by virtue of nothing other than their existence—rights equal to every other individual. We are fortunate in the United States to have this truth spelled out for us in our founding documents.
These rights—human rights—cannot be given and taken away; they are not currency. They can only be violated and restored. Black slaves possessed fundamental human rights just as much as any living person does today, but they were violently, continuously, and thoroughly broken by their white captors. Black people living under Jim Crow possessed these rights, but they were violated by their white rulers. At no point did Abraham Lincoln or any other white American give black people something that wasn’t already theirs. Slaves’ freedom wasn’t created by Lincoln; it had been systematically strangled by their captors since birth, and Lincoln helped restore it. Black Americans’ civil rights weren’t invented by JFK and Lyndon Johnson; they had been categorically denied based on skin color, and the legislation LBJ signed into law helped restore them. The many white Americans who fought in the Civil War and defeated Southern slavery and the few who participated in the Civil Rights Movement were not engaged in the addition of newfound justice to the world. They were undoing some of the grave injustices already done by their kind. They were helping to give black people what they were due. To ask black people to thank those white people for what they did is to think that those white people were innocent bystanders. It is to think that they could have just as easily chosen to stand by for further centuries of horrific crimes perpetrated against their fellow man and be consigned to history as merely adequate or even respectable in their inaction, not actively complicit in the horror.
The significance of complicity was not at all lost on those suffering the injustices. Martin Luther King, Jr. perhaps says it best in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” addressed to white clergymen who condemned his campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience:
… I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
Let us also consider the actual history of white involvement in the advancement of the rights of black people, because it is not as favorable as LePage seems to believe. As nice as it may be to remember it this way, the Civil War was not a Northern holy war to rain justice down on Southern slavers. Slavery may have made Northerners uncomfortable, but before the war, they were only attempting to rein in its growth, not exterminate it from the country entirely. It was the South’s slave-based zealotry that led them to secede from the Union, preferring to split the nation than endure any hindrance to their barbaric treatment of Black people. It was the splitting of the Union that caused the North to go to war, and it was only in the throes of conflict that they proclaimed the freedom of slaves in rebel territory, and only at the end of the conflict did they end slavery in the whole nation.
One hundred years later, the Civil Rights Movement, in which John Lewis was a major figure, saw very little support from white people. We have an inaccurate perception nowadays of the Movement as a story of evil, racist Southerners as the sole villain with the rest of the country behind MLK and his compatriots. The reality is that most Americans did not support what the Movement was doing. Looking at survey data from the time makes this clear:
- 61% of people disapproved of the Freedom Riders riding buses into Southern states to challenge the segregation of transportation (1961)
- 57% thought sit-ins would hurt the civil rights cause (1961)
- 60% disapproved of the 1963 March on Washington (1963)
- 85% of whites thought demonstrations hurt the advancement of black people’s rights (1966)
- 50% of whites thought Martin Luther King was hurting the cause of civil rights, compared to 36% who thought he was helping (1966)
- 83% of people somewhat (30%) or definitely (53%) agreed with the statement “Negroes would be better off if they would take advantage of the opportunities that have been made available rather than spending so much time protesting.” (1967)
The list goes on. For comparison, 40% of white Americans today hold favorable views of Black Lives Matter, a movement treated as irreconcilably controversial. As for Northerners specifically, it seems they only tolerated the Civil Rights Movement as long as it wasn’t focused on them. This chart from Gallup showing national support for MLK by year demonstrates the point:
Support for him was roughly split between favorable and unfavorable until 1966, when people viewed him unfavorably by a 2-to-1 margin. That was the year he helped expand the Civil Rights Movement to tackle discrimination in the North. As soon as Dr. King’s eyes turned toward the country as a whole, he seemed a lot less appealing to those who had been rooting for, or at least tolerant of, his work in the South.
It is difficult to find a civil rights issue that white people were simply neutral on, let alone supportive of, in the 1960s. One exception that proves the rule is a question that asked whether respondents supported the actions of civil rights groups or the State of Alabama during the 1965 events in Selma, when law enforcement officers beat activists, including John Lewis, in the event that we now know as “Bloody Sunday.” 48% supported the civil rights groups. 21% supported the State of Alabama. The rest said either “not sure” or “neither.” Watching peaceful protesters fiercely beaten is what it took to get national support for civil rights groups almost—but not quite—to 50%. These civil rights demonstrations in Selma and throughout the South are now rightly considered seminal moments of American history, and we do not have white people to thank for them, Northern or Southern.
But to reiterate my earlier point, let’s imagine white people did all of these things on their own. Let’s imagine Abraham Lincoln raised the Union Army to sweep through the South and break every chain around a black person’s neck they could find. Let’s imagine JFK and a legion of white Northern liberals were the ones engaging in civil disobedience in the South, leading the March on Washington, and getting beaten in Selma. Let’s imagine Paul LePage, this very day, leads the charge to eradicate every notion of discrimination against black Americans in our criminal justice system, our education system, our culture, and our economy. The ones building monuments in the name of these men, the ones praising their stories in speeches and textbooks, the ones teaching their children about these heroes’ good deeds, and the ones giving thanks should not be black. They should be white. It should be white people who praise them for defeating the egregious system of oppression created by their race as fiercely as they would praise God for healing them of a disease thought incurable. Because as this outrageous abuse of fundamental rights went on, who was in the greatest position to stop it all along?
The most white Americans should ever hope to hear from black Americans—the greatest praise to ever dream of attaining after far more work is done—is “we forgive you.” To ask for anything more is to ignore history and to misunderstand the rights of mankind. For a governor to do so is not only appalling but dangerous. It signifies that he is not only unwilling to participate in the unfinished work of advancing black rights in America without prostration from black people, but that he may be okay with the unraveling of what gains have been made if he feels black people have not demonstrated what he considers to be sufficient gratitude. LePage has significant influence over the lives of the people in his state, particularly in the racially fraught matters of law enforcement and education. And people across the country pay attention to what elected officials say. To many, the words of a governor are more than enough evidence to legitimize a viewpoint. That means his remarks need to be taken very seriously, and they need to be corrected. LePage should issue an apology and reach out to John Lewis and the NAACP at the very least. But the reality is the beliefs he displayed on Tuesday do not represent the kind of thinking that can be easily corrected. The best recourse will likely have to come at the ballot box, both for the governor if he ever decides to run for office again and the colleagues of his that fail to distance themselves from his comments.
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Edited to correct the mistake pointed out by a reader in a comment below. On January 1st, 1863 Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the freedom of slaves in rebel (Confederate) territory, not Union territory.