AUBURN — In no uncertain terms, the city’s leadership condemned racially-charged comments from a City Council member about the renaming of a pedestrian bridge over the Androscoggin River to honor a former mayor.

John Jenkins

In a statement issued Thursday, the mayor and council called it, “incomprehensible to us that a few people in our community” would see as merely “a hollow gesture” the renaming of the trestle bridge between Bonney Park in Auburn and Simard-Payne Memorial Park after John Jenkins, a Black man who died last year after serving as Maine’s first African-American state senator. He also put in stints as mayor of both Lewiston and Auburn.

Mayor Jason Levesque and the council said the controversy surrounding Tuesday’s council session, “has compelled us as a body to remind our community about the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The statement followed national publicity surrounding council member Leroy Walker’s commentary about complaints he’d received about naming the bridge after Jenkins, specifically regarding the color of his skin.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization, called on Walker to resign in the wake of the meeting.

“When any national, state or local official exhibits racist views, it is an indication that he or she cannot equitably represent a diverse community,” Ismail Allison, the group’s spokesperson, said in a prepared statement.

People walk across the trestle bridge between Bonney Park in Auburn and Simard-Payne Memorial Park in July. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

“We condemn Mr. Walker’s racist statements and urge him to resign,” Allison said.

Council member Tim Macleod said Thursday that Walker’s comments were unacceptable.

“Words matter, and while I always support the ability to speak freely, words have consequences. The citizens of Auburn deserve to be represented by those who foster inclusion and equity,” he said. “It saddens me that there are still citizens in Auburn that feel the way Councilor Walker expressed. Ignorance does not excuse actions. We need to do better as a city. Racism has no place in Auburn or any community.”

Another councilor, Katie Boss, said Thursday that Walker’s words, “were offensive and disheartening,” and that he “used the Council as a platform to amplify racist commentary, employing discriminatory language that must not be tolerated in any community.”

Boss said she recognized that Walker’s intent, “does not matter. Our community should be able to celebrate the accomplishments of all Auburn residents regardless of their skin color, and if this is not the case then we have work to do. Moving forward, we must focus on implementing strategies to promote diversity and encourage inclusion and equity in Auburn — and in doing so, honor the city’s motto: No Backward Steps.”

Levesque had no comment Thursday about the call for Walker to step down.

The statement he put out along with the council, which includes Walker, said, “We believe that as elected officials, we are responsible for improving the lives of the people who live, work and spend time in our beautiful city, and that embracing diversity, promoting equity and fostering inclusion is fundamental to Auburn’s continued success.”

It said that naming the old railroad bridge in honor of Jenkins “is about who he was as a person” and added that Jenkins “was someone we want the communities of Auburn and Lewiston to remember forever.”

“It is incomprehensible to us that a few people in our community might see the renaming of an Auburn landmark in honor of John Jenkins as a hollow gesture,” the statement said.

It said that the move was meant “with humility, pride, respect and gratitude” to memorialize “a man who impacted Auburn in such a meaningful and lasting way.”

Walker, who has weathered controversy in the past, has shown no sign of stepping down. He is running unopposed in Ward 5 for a sixth term on the council.

He said Wednesday that he is “not a racist” as some are making him out to be.

“I’m not prejudiced in any way,” Walker insisted, adding that he has Black friends and that he has a “real, close friend who is 100% black and we get along great.”

Walker said he only brought up the complaints from people who phoned him because they felt so strongly that it would be a mistake to name the bridge after Jenkins in the wake of problems he perceived with Black people looting in the wake of Hurricane Ida.

He said the only connection between Jenkins, who died last year, and the alleged looting was “skin color” and that it was too bad the mayhem in the South had tarred Jenkins’ reputation.

While there have been scattered calls in both cities for Walker to resign, no public official has yet to back the push by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

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