In 1961, John Lewis, then a 21-year-old college student, stepped off a bus in Rock Hill South Carolina and headed for a “whites-only” bathroom. The waiting crowd beat and stomped him until he was unconscious.
He was the first of the Freedom Riders to be attacked, but far from the last. He survived bats and rocks and firebombs. He would be severely beaten many times over the next decade and spend months in prison for persistently and calmly asserting the basic rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution.
He continued to organize and helped found and lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was one of the most effective and energizing leaders of the civil rights movement and among the most committed to peaceful protest, reconciliation and forgiveness.
On Edmund Pettus Bridge, as he led 600 marchers from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, Lewis was rushed by Alabama state troopers and beaten with nightsticks. His skull was fractured and he nearly died. More than 50 years later, the scars are still visible on his head.
This is the man who Maine Governor Paul LePage today said doesn’t understand the history of the civil rights movement, and sarcastically suggested that he spend more time thanking white Republicans from the 1800s.
“I will just say this. John Lewis ought to look at history,” said LePage in an interview on radio station WVOM. “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.”
This wasn’t some off-hand comment. The radio hosts hadn’t mentioned Lewis, but LePage felt the need to invoke and attack him for his comments about President-elect Donald Trump.
LePage got the history of Jim Crow wrong, as Christopher Cousins has pointed out, as well as the history of political parties (if he was intending to make some tenuous point about previous centuries’ Republicans), but a factual critique along those lines misses the bigger, sadder point.
For the governor to blithely turn the current conversation on Trump’s legitimacy into an attack on Lewis for not being sufficiently thankful for the end of the enslavement of his ancestors (presumably because of his civil rights bona fides, or perhaps simply because he’s black) betrays an incredibly warped and racist worldview.
Much like his generalizations about black drug dealers, white “Maine women” or about “people of color” being “the enemy,” LePage’s latest statement reveals a deeper problem with how he divides up the world into us and them (and how he sees nothing wrong with doing so).
It’s clear LePage hasn’t yet finished showing us just how low he can go, both as a political leader and as a human being.