More than 150 years ago, Acadians and Quebecois moved to Maine cities looking for work in textile mills, while Italian and Irish immigrants, fleeing hunger and joblessness in their native lands, swelled the ranks of other Maine towns.
The rush of foreign nationals with different sounding names and accents stirred resentment among some earlier residents. In the early 1800s, riots occasionally broke out between Irish and non-Irish workers. Catholic churches were burned or vandalized in coastal towns where the Know-Nothing Party flourished for a time.
Although they were hardly the first inhabitants of this land, the Know-Nothings laid claim to a nativist hatred of all that they considered foreign. Similarly, racist and anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan cells existed in Maine in the early 1900s, and the Klan was a factor in the gubernatorial election of 1924.
Maine has never become the true melting pot that other states are. But our tradition of rugged individualism does place value on the rights of others to exist with dignity, peace and independence – a value that is wholly inconsistent with Know-Nothings, the Ku Klux Klan and recently reported incidents of hate speech.
As district attorney for Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford counties some years ago, I prosecuted a couple of young men for burning a cross on the lawn of a person associated with Gould Academy, a crime motivated by the presence of minority students at that school.
The act was carried out by a small band of locals who were imitating something they had heard about or seen on television. “What’s the big deal?” these modern day Know-Nothings asked. “We didn’t mean anything by it.”
In examining the law, I found to my dismay that no category really fit the crime. I could charge them only with disorderly conduct and criminal mischief. The young men were punished, but the true nature of their deeds would never be reflected on their records.
We sought help from the United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. We held community meetings to try find out why something so outrageous could happen in our state.
In part in response to that Oxford County case, and with Attorney General Jim Tierney’s help, the Legislature enacted Maine’s first Civil Rights law, Title 17, chapter 93-C.
Based on a Massachusetts statute, this law prohibits anyone from interfering by force or threat of force with another person in the exercise or enjoyment of his or her civil rights. A violation carries up to 364 days imprisonment.
The Legislature later added a civil remedy in Title 5, which allows the Attorney General to seek an injunction against a person who violates another person’s civil rights. The Attorney General can also seek a civil penalty of up to $5,000, and the victim may sue for damages or an injunction.
The Legislature then amended the criminal code to allow a judge to consider as an aggravating factor in sentencing someone for any crime the targeting of the victim based on race, color, religion, sex, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability, sexual orientation or homelessness.
These laws recognize that acts in which victims are selected because of their class or group are a greater threat to our social fabric because of the historical context of these acts and the irreparable harm they pose to the peace of mind of entire groups of residents.
Having these penalties and remedies on the books is important, but it does not change the mentality of those who disparage groups of people they consider to be different from themselves in order to assuage their own poor self-esteem.
In 2007 there were 66 reported incidents of hate crimes in Maine, two-thirds of them based on race, 14 percent on religion and 24 percent on sexual orientation. Recent incidents have also targeted Maine’s American Indian community.
Civil rights teams in our schools are improving the attitudes of young people toward people whom they perceive as being different. Changing attitudes, involving kids in interactions with others and setting positive examples are significant steps toward preventing violence and hate speech.
The lingering legacy of the Know-Nothings in Maine is the sign on the shop wall, the graffiti on the bridge, the slur on the tongue. Personal and universal condemnation of these acts will send a strong message: Know-Nothings are not welcome here.
Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, is a practicing lawyer, former district attorney and a member of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and Appropriations Committee.