As a student of African-American history, I find Gov. Paul LePage’s “history lesson” to John Lewis incredibly unsettling.

While many people have rightly pointed out how wrong LePage got his history when he said that President Rutherford B. Hayes fought Jim Crow laws in the South, what I find more concerning is the white savior complex LePage flaunts in the face of a man like Lewis, an African-American activist who did so much to ensure that the promises of freedom and democracy enshrined in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are enjoyed by all Americans.

LePage’s myopic view of the history of American freedom as merely white men’s history is disturbing at best, and dangerous at worst. In hailing Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes as the harbingers of black freedom and civil rights, LePage insultingly obscures the actions of countless African Americans who put their lives on the line to expand freedom and democracy in America, and effectively forced men such as Lincoln and Grant to act.

As such, LePage should apologize for ignoring the hundreds of African Americans who colluded to overthrow slavery and make America a truly free country. He should apologize for forgetting about Gabriel Prosser and the 25 other slaves who were hanged by Virginians in 1800 after organizing a slave rebellion intent on eradicating slavery from the nation. Prosser and his accomplices were influenced by the ideals of freedom, liberty and equality that had been espoused by the Founding Fathers during the American Revolution.

LePage should apologize to Nat Turner and his followers who carried out the most successful slave uprising in United States history, and forced slaveholders and the rest of the country to once again question the institution of slavery and its relationship to freedom. He should acknowledge the actions of thousands of other slaves, such as Frederick Douglass, who committed their own personal rebellions by fleeing to freedom. Men and women like Harriet Tubman, who assisted these refugees along the way and in doing so undermined slavery, also deserve an apology.

LePage owes an apology to the slaves who, in May 1861 at the outset of the Civil War, showed up at Fortress Monroe in Virginia seeking freedom behind Union lines. He should apologize for forgetting about the thousands of black men, women, and children who absconded from the plantations of their enslavement and risked their lives to reach Union lines to gain their freedom. These men and women labored and languished in refugee camps as they aided the Northern war effort.

Long before Lincoln turned the war to preserve the Union into a war for freedom, enslaved people in the South understood the true stakes of the war. They effectively shaped federal wartime policy and spurred Lincoln down the path to eventually issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. LePage should apologize to the 198,000 African American men who fought in the Union Army and Navy to abolish slavery, secure their freedom and protect the future of the nation.

LePage should apologize to the courageous African Americans who stepped forward to give testimony to federal officials about the terrorism white paramilitary groups like the Ku Klux Klan inflicted on them under Grant’s presidency. The information these men and women provided revealed the wanton violence and intimidation that black people faced in the South and catalyzed President Grant to approve legislation to increase federal oversight in the South.

Activists like Ida B. Wells deserve an apology from LePage as well. Wells risked her life to collect and publish evidence that proved that the thousands of victims of lynching in America were overwhelmingly innocent of the crimes of which whites accused them.

Finally, LePage should apologize to civil rights activists like Medgar Evars, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and yes, John Lewis, who organized a grass-roots movement to press for the spread of democracy in America by demanding voting and civil rights.

Sure, Lincoln, Grant and other presidents passed legislation that assisted African Americans in securing the fruits of freedom, but they acted only as a result of the pressure placed on them by the brave actions of African Americans. LePage and all Americans would do well to remember this. A simple apology would suffice.

Ashley Towle of Portland is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Maryland and an adjunct history professor at the University of Southern Maine.

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