Despite protests and boycotts, President Trump spent part of the weekend in a state with a rich history of racial discrimination praising some of the figures that worked to dismantle that racism. But the visit resurfaced a common criticism of the president and his relationship with those Americans who arguably benefited most from the movement.
After touring Mississippi Civil Rights Museum exhibits telling the stories of activists who were beaten, jailed and even killed for protesting racism in America, Trump spoke at a private ceremony commemorating the Jackson museum's opening.
“The civil rights museum records oppression, cruelty and injustice inflicted on the African American community,” he said. “The fight to end slavery, to break down Jim Crow, to end segregation, to gain the right to vote and to achieve the sacred birthright of equality — that’s big stuff.”
The lack of approval for Trump's appearance and speech was in part rooted in a frequent criticism from observers of the president's relationship with black voters that emerged during the earliest days of the campaign: Trump's speeches about black people aren't actually about black people; they are about winning the support of white people.
Polling shows that most Americans believe Trump has encouraged white supremacists during a time when many Americans still consider being racist socially unacceptable. But despite the president's previous condemnation of white-supremacist groups, some of the president's critics believe he is more concerned with winning the support of white voters uncomfortable with supporting a leader who stokes white supremacy than he is in attracting the support of black voters.
The Washington Post's Philip Bump wrote about this when Trump launched into his pitch to black voters on the campaign trail in Dimondale, Mich., a city whose population is less than 1 percent black:
It's likely that Trump's continuing lack of meaningful outreach to black voters keeps him from understanding effective ways of arguing his case. When he went to Baton Rouge to see flood damage, he stopped at a Baptist church with a mostly white congregation.
Or maybe black voters aren't his intended audience. Maybe, with his poll numbers low thanks to soft support from his own party, Trump is trying to convince Republicans that he wants or can earn the black vote.
As on the trail, Trump's speech Saturday was delivered to a largely white audience. And that is the community most likely to look graciously at Trump's decision to tour the museum. The president was already planning to be in the Deep South, having spent Friday at a Pensacola, Fla., rally asking voters to support Roy Moore, the Alabama U.S. Senate candidate recently criticized for suggesting that slavery was the last time America was “great.”
Trump was invited to the museum's official opening — the capstone of Mississippi's bicentennial celebration — by the state's Republican governor, who endorsed the president after his state's conservative voters chose Trump in the Republican primary. But among others, particularly those with a longer relationship with the civil rights movement than the president, Trump was anything but welcome. The private ceremony was organized for the president after civil rights leaders and lawmakers announced they would not attend the official event if Trump did.
Disappointed with his frequent attacks of activists such as NFL players and Black Lives Matter protesters and what the Congressional Black Caucus says is an insufficient response to issues important to black voters, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was brutally beat while marching for black voting rights, announced he would not deliver the keynote address if Trump shared the stage.
“President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum,” Lewis and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) said in a joint statement Thursday.
Trump has spent December visiting states still dealing with the realities of racism and recognizing civil rights icon Rosa Parks on his social media feed. But these things are not likely to improve his 11 percent approval rating with black voters — a demographic that, following the Obama presidency, is increasingly demanding more than symbolism and photo ops from its elected figures.
Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the Democratic mayor of Jackson, protested Trump's visit Saturday and shared his thoughts on how best to honor the legacies of those featured in the museum:
“The way to honor that story is a continuing commitment to the ideals on which the civil rights movement was founded.”
If Trump genuinely cares about furthering the work of those in the museum, black voters and lawmakers hold, he needs to pursue a legislative agenda and record that demonstrate a commitment to making America great for all people — including the more than 90 percent of black voters who voted against the president.