With just one week before he takes office, on the eve of the first Martin Luther King, Jr. day since he won the Presidential election, Donald Trump has chosen to denigrate the record of one of our country’s true heroes of the civil rights movement, John Lewis. The President-elect calling Lewis "all talk, no action" — an ironic charge to make of one of the original Freedom Riders and best known foot soldiers in MLK’s movement — comes in response to the Georgia Congressman saying he did not consider Trump "a legitimate President" due to Russian electoral interference. Trump’s sensitivity to having his Presidency’s legitimacy questioned is notable for a man who spent years himself questioning the legitimacy of our present President as a natural-born American citizen.
For a man fixated on branding and optics, the timing and circumstances of this are deeply unfortunate.
From his leading role in the "Birther" movement to his calling for capital punishment for the Central Park Five in 1989 to his 2016 campaign trail characterizations of black communities as burning dystopian wastelands (underscored by constantly exhorting "What do you have to lose?"), the President-elect has suffered an uneasy relationship with a large swath of the African American community. Since winning the election, Trump has promised to reach out to people alienated by his rhetoric, and has put stock in his Trump Tower photo-ops and meetings with the likes of Kanye West, Steve Harvey, Don King, and Jim Brown.
But the President-elect has canceled what would have been his most substantial symbolic gesture toward the black community yet — his planned MLK Jr. Day visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History And Culture — in the wake of this spat with Rep. Lewis, who first introduced the bill to create this museum upon entering Congress in 1988. Perhaps Trump felt patronizing the museum would call even more attention to this affair. Though in fairness, his Tweets have called plenty of attention themselves.
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 15, 2017
Embedded in all of this is a broad swipe at the commonwealth of Atlanta, the majority of which is represented in John Lewis’s Congressional district. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s front page captures the mood there:
In their front-page story, the AJC noted that "incredulous" Atlanta residents "characterized Trump as clueless about everything from Atlanta’s thriving intown neighborhoods to the beating Lewis took years ago as he marched in Alabama for voting rights."
While the Atlanta community writ large has begun registered its response, ATL's vibrant artist community hasn't yet addressed Trump's recent comments. Given T.I.'s recent open letters to President Obama and to President-elect Trump (just this past Friday), he's likely to to weigh in more directly on this dust-up as the inauguration approaches.
From a broader political standpoint, Lewis's statement on Trump's legitimacy has been polarizing, as is his decision not to attend Friday's inauguration, even as Lewis's status and record as an activist and hero has been nearly unanimously defended and praised. Republicans and commentators have defended Trump's electoral victory, pointing to the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia engaged in partisan email hacking but not actual voter machine tampering; Republicans like Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse have also implored Lewis to reconsider his Inaugural absence:
To John Lewis, one of my heroes:— Ben Sasse (@BenSasse) January 14, 2017
Please come to the Inauguration. It isn't about a man. It is a celebration of peaceful transfer of power.
At the time of publish, Lewis is one of 26 members of Congress not attending Trump's inauguration.
Meanwhile, despite his impetuous Tweeting, the politics of the moment haven't entirely escaped Trump. According to incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, Trump intends to spend time on this MLK Jr. Day with Martin Luther King III and other civil rights thinkers, with other headline-making activities and events surely planned.
For this incoming administration, the work of community building can't begin soon enough, and for a campaign built on making America great, honoring great Americans' achievements and legacies is an important step. This national holiday honors the idea that the long road of America's greatness glitters with the jewels of MLK's Dream. Ignoring their luster in favor for a path sewn with the dirt of divisiveness is not the way, nor has it ever been.