WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — Martin Luther King Day marks its 31st year as a federal holiday amid fallout from President-elect Donald Trump’s racially-tinged weekend tweet storm and inauguration preparations.
It’s a unique moment in American history as the country’s first African American president, with record high personal approval ratings, vacates the Oval Office, and minorities view race relations as their worst in 15 years.
Trump didn’t help matters over the weekend as he painted civil rights pioneer Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., as the overseer of a “crime infested” congressional district that is “in horrible shape.”
Lewis’s Atlanta-area congressional district is 58-percent black.
Whereas the billionaire politician sells himself as a man of decisive action, Trump labeled Rep. Lewis, who was brutally beaten while peacefully protesting for voting rights in the 1960s, as a jabbering figurehead full of “talk, talk, talk.”
The Twitter tirade was seemingly set off by Rep Lewis’s statement on “Meet The Press” that he would not be attending the Trump inauguration, since he doesn’t view the president-elect as “legitimate” thanks to Russia’s role in undermining Hillary Clinton and attempting to sway the election in the Republican’s favor.
More than two dozen members of Congress, many of them African American, will join Lewis in boycotting Friday’s inauguration ceremony.
This is not the conversation anyone in Washington planned to be having ahead of Inauguration Day, much less Martin Luther King Day.
“I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say,” President Barack Obama said before a madding crowd at his farewell address in Chicago last week.
But that’s not good enough, Obama acknowledged, considering the racial, class and economic fissures exposed in the ugly 2016 election season.
Mirroring Rev. King’s message of cohesion, Obama exhorted Americans to push ahead and bind together:
For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face – the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.
Rev. King led the fight for equality, which forcefully challenged the status quo and flummoxed Republican and Democratic leaders alike.
It was especially dicey for Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, who was torn between his southern alliance and a growing number of Americans who agreed with Rev. King. Pleasing urban minorities and white southern Democrats became untenable, and eventually drove many Dixiecrats into the arms of Republicans.
During the intervening decades, America has made long strides in the pursuit of King’s dream, passing legislation like the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act.
Corporations and universities have established initiatives to encourage racially representative work forces and student bodies.
However, disparities and disaffections still exist.
Miles to go
Thanks to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, the demands of dissatisfied groups are more amplified than ever.
Hashtags grow into petitions which become formal protests.
In the Trump era, there is plenty of fodder on both sides, especially when it comes to race.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in June 2016, Trump said:
We have an African-American president and the black youth, the African-American youth has essentially almost never done worse. You look at unemployment in the 50s; you look at African-American people 30 and 35 and 40 in the height of their strength and lives, and they’re doing horribly. President Obama, an African American, has done a terrible job for African Americans. Donald Trump will do a great job for African Americans.
Comments like that have enraged Black Lives Matter members and other young activists who criticize older civil rights leaders for trying to find common ground, large or small, with the incoming administration.
“Young black activists are frustrated with the black leaders and organizations who have met with President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team in recent days — exacerbating generational a split between with the old-guard civil rights activists and the Black Lives Matter movement,” reports BuzzFeed.
One more tweet
Following this weekend’s tweet storm, President-elect Trump warmed up his tone on Monday morning.
Trump extended an olive leaf, if not a full branch, to minority communities unhappy with his latest posts carrying unmistakable racial connotations.
He met with Rev. King’s son at Trump Tower and, in a tweet, called MLK a “great man” who accomplished “wonderful things” during his short life.
Trump has not apologized to Rep. Lewis, who marched alongside King during the 1950s and 1960s.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales