PORTLAND, Maine — Hundreds of Mainers gathered at events across the state Monday to celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr. amid a political atmosphere tinged by tensions between Gov. Paul LePage and civil rights groups over his recent “kiss my butt” remark.
King’s legacy was the primary focus of Monday events in Orono and Portland. But LePage’s earlier “kiss my butt” comment — directed at critics of his decision not to attend NAACP-sponsored events — were a popular topic among those at both locations.
“I believe Dr. King would have a message for us and a message for anyone who would dismiss us in such a manner: turn the other cheek,” said Eric Smith, associate director of the Maine Council of Churches, triggering loud laughter and applause from a crowd of 300-plus gathered outside Portland City Hall to participate in the NAACP’s March for Justice.
Last week, local leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People suggested LePage’s decision to skip two King Day events were part of a troubling pattern. When pressed for a response by reporters, LePage made the now-infamous “kiss my butt” comment but said the decision had nothing to do with race, pointing out his family took in a black Jamaican teenager whom he now refers to as his son.
LePage also said he would not be “held hostage” by special interest groups. That label angered NAACP leaders as well as other groups working on civil rights and social justice issues in Maine.
The remark quickly attracted national attention, including a jab from late-night satirist Stephen Colbert and on Comedy Central’s website.
Wendy Chapkis was among the 300-plus who made the walk from Preble Street to City Hall and then stood outside in the cold as part of the NAACP march in Portland.
While marching, Chapkis proudly waved a large sign with the words “equality is not a special interest” on one side. On the reverse, however, Chapkis’ sign read: “Dear Governor. Thanks for the offer to kiss my butt — but I would rather be embracing diversity.”
Administration officials had said the governor was unable to attend the breakfast in Orono as well as a King memorial dinner in Portland on Sunday due to scheduling conflicts.
But on Saturday, a day after the controversy erupted, LePage decided to attend a King Day breakfast in Waterville that he regularly attended while he served as that city’s mayor. His decision to attend was not made public, however.
“Timing was certainly an issue,” said LePage spokesman Dan Demeritt, noting that LePage had to be in Vassalboro by 10 a.m. for a funeral for a former Maine State Police trooper. “He has been to the Waterville breakfast event before and he wanted to attend it again.”
LePage told a television reporter that his late decision to attend the Waterville breakfast had nothing to do with the NAACP controversy. But Julie de Sherbinin, a language professor at Colby College involved with improving campus race relations, called LePage’s attendance “a political act that has nothing to do with his convictions.”
At the Waterville event, the Rev. Effie McClain, pastor of the Oakland-Sidney United Methodist Church, said before her keynote speech that it was time to move beyond LePage’s earlier remarks.
“I think that oftentimes we say things that just come out wrong and if we had all the money in the world we couldn’t take it back,” said McClain, who is black. “Don’t beat the man continually for something that’s been said.”
In Orono, speakers at the NAACP’s King Day breakfast at the University of Maine did not mention LePage by name, but the issue was certainly on the minds of many attendees.
Jenan Jondy, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Maine in Orono, said she doesn’t believe the governor’s comments reflect most Mainers’ viewpoints.
“The reason I moved here was because of the kindness I’ve seen from people in Maine,’’ said Jondy, who grew up in Dearborn, Mich., but now lives in Hampden. “That is not going to change even if it’s not represented by the people in our government.’’
But David Soagger, a graduate student and member of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, said LePage’s remark was more serious than that.
“Words are hurtful, and what Governor LePage said hurt,” Soagger said. “As a statesman and Maine’s highest executive, it was undignified. As an indigenous person, I am especially offended.”
Part of the reason for the Portland rally was to call attention to an executive order that LePage signed on his first day in office that directed state employees to ask about the immigration status of people seeking state or federal benefits.
Brianna Twofoot with the Maine Civil Liberties Union said LePage’s first action as governor sent “an unwelcoming message to the immigrant and refugee communities in Maine.”
So the MCLU and NAACP on Monday announced plans to present the LePage family with their own welcome gift: a welcome basket full of books “about Maine’s diverse communities,” Twofoot said to loud cheers from the crowd.
LePage’s office has said the governor is willing to meet with representatives of the NAACP and other groups to talk about issues important to all Mainers, such as poverty, immigration and education.
Rachel Talbot Ross, the Maine director of the NAACP, said over the weekend that she was pleased LePage was willing to meet with representatives from her organization, although a date had not been set.
But Monday’s rhetoric showed that — despite the touches of humor in many speeches and signs — nerves were still raw over the governor’s comments.
Ross, for instance, pointed out that one of the books was titled “Speeches that Changed the World.”
“We think the governor of Maine could benefit from reading about how language affects people, and perhaps his speechwriters and communications office might want to check it out as well,” Ross said.
BDN contributor Jamison Cocklin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.