Maine Gov. Paul LePage abruptly changed his Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend plans and showed up at a breakfast honoring the slain civil rights leader Monday, days after he said critics -- especially the NAACP -- of his decision to skip other events could "kiss my butt." He even joined some of the participants in an African dance.
The comment drew harsh criticism from state and national leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Maine NAACP Director Rachel Talbot Ross said her organization is no special interest, and the group's national president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said LePage's comments "inflame racial tension":
The GOP governor's appearance was added to the politician's calendar on Saturday, the day after he made the controversial remarks about criticism he received over his decision not to attend the state NAACP's annual King Day celebrations. He said at the time that he didn't attend events for special interests, and his spokesman cited scheduling conflicts including personal plans and a state trooper's funeral on Monday.
But on Monday, he found time.
One key difference, however, was the event was not sanctioned by the NAACP, but rather a local senior citizens' group as well as the localRotary Club. And while the appearance was hastily added to his schedule, LePage attended the same breakfast numerous times in the past while serving as the host town's mayor.
LePage, who was elected in November with tea party support, didn't speak publicly at Monday's breakfast, but he chatted with some of the roughly 150 participants, most of whom were white. In an interview, he declined to discuss his earlier comments, but acknowledged that the holiday "represents an awful lot, particularly to black America. I mean, Martin Luther King was a peaceful activist and unfortunately he gave his life for it."
He also adamantly denied his appearance was connected with, or in response to, his statements on Friday.
"Absolutely not, it had nothing to do with it," he responded when asked about a possible correlation.
In a statement issued later by his office, he said, "Dr. King is someone who spent and ultimately gave his life making sure that people got a fair shake regardless of race. We have come far through the years, but the journey continues to make Dr. King's dreams a reality. I urge all Mainers to work as one for a better life for all."
Rep. 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 often times 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."
Others attending Monday's event weren't so forgiving.
LePage's attendance was "a political act that has nothing to do with his convictions," said Julie de Sherbinin, a language professor at Colby College in Waterville. De Sherbinin, who is white, is involved in a campus organization that promotes improved race relations.
LePage stayed for the entire 90-minute event, including an African drum act by a Colby ensemble. The smiling governor clapped his hands and briefly joined others who danced to the pounding rhythm.
In response to the NAACP's outrage, LePage over the weekend offered to meet with the group, but only "to discuss issues regarding all Maine's people." No meeting time has been set.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.