For many Americans, President Trump’s approach to commemorating the legacy of one of the world’s greatest civil rights leaders was a reminder of just how much they lost with the end of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the nearly four decades since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday became a federal holiday, Republican and Democratic presidents alike have attended events and given speeches about how much work remains to fulfill the dream that King spoke of in his vision for America.
But as early as Monday morning, the federal remembrance of King’s birthday, Trump still had nothing on his agenda.
He eventually visited the wall for less than two minutes with Vice President Pence, who was criticized this past weekend for arguing that Trump is continuing King’s legacy through his immigration policy. But despite stopping by the memorial, which features numerous quotes reminding visitors of King’s worldview, Trump’s comments to the media did not acknowledge King, his message or the holiday.
After quite a bit of criticism, the president issued a Twitter proclamation praising the civil rights leader, but for many liberals, tweeting a statement was insufficient. Activist and MSNBC host Al Sharpton — whose MLK Day breakfast in Washington, D.C., featured former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Vice President Joe Biden, both potential 2020 presidential candidates — blasted Trump and Pence for having no official events to recognize King.
When Trump ran for office, he challenged black voters to support his campaign, claiming that their life in America was in such disarray that they had nothing to lose by backing him. At a rally before a predominately white crowd in Akron, Ohio, a city of with a black population of about 31 percent, Trump launched into one of his more memorable appeals to black voters. He said:
Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period. The Democrats have failed completely in the inner cities. For those hurting the most who have been failed and failed by their politician — year after year, failure after failure, worse numbers after worse numbers. Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats. And I ask you this, I ask you this — crime, all of the problems — to the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. I’ll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?
The crowd cheered and applauded the then-candidate. But while Trump eventually won, he got only 8 percent of the black vote in 2016, exit polls revealed. In part, because black voters saw his characterization of black communities as based in stereotypes, lacking nuance and absent of any type of reflection that included the role Trump’s party played in the disparities between predominantly black communities and white communities.
And there hasn’t been much change in support for Trump from black Americans. His current approval rating with black voters is among the lowest of all ethnic groups: a mere 9 percent, according to Gallup.
To most black voters, Pence’s claim about Trump’s immigration policy honoring King is preposterous, and Trump’s initial silence on MLK Day was deafening. To them, not only has the president failed to expand the legacies of King and Obama, but he has stood in direct opposition to the advancement of civil rights for marginalized people. By criticizing those protesting racism in America; sympathizing with white nationalists who marched to protect monuments of Confederate soldiers, who fought to keep black people enslaved; and now failing to sufficiently honor King, Trump has made whatever gains the GOP hoped he would win with black voters look highly unlikely.