Iconic 1960s civil rights leader and Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) whipped up no small amount of controversy when he said during an NBC News interview on 14 January 2017 that he does not see President-elect Donald Trump as a legitimate president. When asked why, he replied:
I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected. And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.
Lewis’s statement, coupled with his refusal to attend Trump’s inauguration, sparked immediate outrage from Republicans, including dismissive tweets from the President-elect himself:
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
A few days later, Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, called Lewis out during an appearance on WVOM-FM radio’s George Hale & Ric Tyler Show in Bangor:
How about John Lewis last week, criticizing the president? 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 himself is no stranger to racial controversy, having blamed Maine’s substance abuse problem on out-of-state drug dealers with names like “D-Money” and “Smoothie” during a January 2016 town hall meeting (via the Portland Press Herald):
“These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty – these types of guys – they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home,” LePage told a large crowd. “Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road.”
Phil Bartlett, head of the Maine Democratic Party, chided LePage for his comments about Lewis, which he said “reflect a profound misunderstanding of history and the crucial role that Rep. John Lewis played in the struggle for civil rights.” A spokesperson for Lewis told the Press Herald that LePage’s comments didn’t merit a response from the Congressman:
“I don’t think (Lewis) feels the need to defend himself against spurious comments,” Lewis’ communications director, Brenda Jones, said. “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.”
While it is accurate to say that Abraham Lincoln freed a large number of black slaves by issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the institution of slavery wasn’t eradicated in the United States until the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. Ulysses S. Grant, who served as president from 1869 to 1877, supported extending rights to freed slaves and backed Reconstruction, but it’s not accurate to say he “fought Jim Crow laws,” as they had not yet come into existence.
For Rutherford B. Hayes’ part, far from fighting Jim Crow, he presided over a period (1877-1881) which saw Reconstruction come to a full stop and racially discriminatory laws spread across the South — laws which would remain in effect until the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which John Lewis played a key role in bringing about.