Governor's Election-Night Comment Offends NAACP

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:25 PM EDT

( - "Free at last, free at last" - that impromptu election-night comment by Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore has offended many African-Americans, who have called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to complain.

By echoing the words the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. used in his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, Gilmore was trampling on sacred ground, according to Salim Khalfani, the executive director of the Virginia NAACP.

"Those words are sacred to many," Khalfani said, adding that they represent an ideal that still does not exist. "A lot of people do not think the Republicans' victory in the General Assembly hold the same importance as King's call for equality," he said.

Mark Miner, a spokesman for Gilmore, said the governor did not mean to offend anyone. "He was trying to convey that it was a historic moment, just as King's speech was a historic moment," Miner said. "It was a call for all to unite and work together for the good of the commonwealth."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has also complained about Gilmore's use of the phrase in a letter written Thursday. "I think people would just like to hear an apology from the governor," Khalfani said.

But Virginia Delegate Paul Harris of Albemarle, the only black Republican in either chamber of the General Assembly, criticized the NAACP's response to Gilmore's comment: "In my view, when the Virginia NAACP reacts with righteous indignation over such remarks, but timidly looks the other way as black rap artists disgrace the ... dignity of black women, their criticism rings ... hollow and hypocritical," Harris said.

Gilmore and other Republicans were jubilant Tuesday night, after the GOP took control of both houses of the Virginia legislature for the first time in history. "Free at last" was one of many expressions of joy and delight that echoed through the evening at the GOP victory party.