The eruption of hostilities between President-elect Donald Trump and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, may be recorded as just one more example of what has become standard Twitter retaliation for Trump.
But coming on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend, it also personalized and heightened the passions around Trump’s difficult history with African Americans, the group of voters from whom he might be most alienated as he prepares to move into the White House this week.
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Friday, Lewis said he did not consider Trump to be “a legitimate president” because of allegations that high-level Russian operatives interfered in the election on Trump’s behalf. Trump lobbed back with a tweet in the early hours Saturday that disparaged both the congressman and his district, which includes some of Atlanta’s most affluent neighborhoods.
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart,” Trump wrote. “(Not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
Trump continued his taunts in another tweet Saturday evening, saying that 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!”
Trump’s attack on Lewis drew widespread condemnation across party lines, particularly given Lewis’s role in the fight for voting rights for African Americans.
“John Lewis is beyond a doubt the conscience of the country, and that’s why his people [constituents] send him to Congress,” said Kwame Lillard, an activist who helped to organize the civil-rights-era Freedom Rides and has known Lewis for more than 60 years.
Lewis also was one of the leaders of the legendary Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march in 1965, in which Alabama state troopers attacked marchers, leaving many of them, including Lewis, badly injured. The march entered the American lexicon as “Bloody Sunday,” and the stark images of the police beatings helped build support for the civil rights movement.
Shamed Dogan, a Republican member of Missouri’s House of Representatives, said that the state’s new governor, Eric Greitens (R), attended the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration two days after taking office.
“I would like to see Donald Trump take the same approach to the Congressional Black Caucus and find common ground with them instead of feuding with heroes like Congressman Lewis,” Dogan said.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Hispanics, Muslims and women was one of the hallmarks of his campaign, and while he emerged from the election with a solid majority of electoral college votes, he trailed Democrat Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million popular votes. In national exit polling, 91 percent of black voters had an unfavorable view of Trump, while 83 percent regarded Clinton favorably. In their vote preference, the exit polling found that black voters favored Clinton over Trump by a margin of 89 percent to 8 percent.
Since Election Day, Trump has said that, in an effort to bring the country together, he would reach out to voters who did not support him.
During the transition, Trump has been frequently photographed at his New York headquarters with black celebrities, including the rapper Kanye West, retired football great Ray Lewis and boxing promoter Don King. On Friday, he was visited by Steve Harvey, a comedian, game-show host and dating-advice guru. Harvey supported Clinton and had been critical of Trump during the campaign, but after their meeting he said the president-elect was “congenial and sincere.”
The attack on John Lewis, however, underscores Trump’s tense relationship with black voters and seemed to echo some of his past confrontations with African Americans.
Trump started his presidential campaign with huge disadvantages among African Americans, in part because of his years-long questioning of whether President Obama was born in the United States. Trump also drew criticism for taking out a full-page ad in New York newspapers in 1989 urging the death penalty for five black and Hispanic teenagers accused of raping a woman in Central Park. Even after the young men were exonerated, Trump criticized the city for awarding them damages for the years they had spent in prison and continued to argue that they were “guilty of something.”
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Trump began appealing to black voters to give him a chance. Speaking at rallies, to overwhelmingly white audiences, Trump described black people as living “in hell,” stuck in crumbling, crime-ridden neighborhoods and failing schools. “What do you have to lose?” he asked.
For some people, Trump’s attack on Lewis — as well as his inaccurate description of Atlanta, a longtime haven for middle- and upper-middle-class African Americans — brought it all back.
Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, said that if Trump was serious about reaching out to the black community, he would have to take responsibility for a campaign whose tone was “divisive at best, seriously offensive at worst” and “dangerous” with reports of an increase in racist behavior and actions directed at minorities by some whites. She said he will have to meet with and apologize to the civil rights community and young activists in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The burden of proof is on you. It’s not on everybody else to warm up to you because you’re the president,” she said of Trump. “Because the rhetoric came out of his mouth, the burden of proof is on him to show that he’s changed, he’s sensitive and he cares about those issues.”
D.L. Hughley, a comedian and political commentator, put it more bluntly in a Facebook video in which he blasted Trump for “having a comedian and a rapper and a football player out to talk about the concerns of the community.”
“If Donald Trump cared about black people, he wouldn’t have denigrated the president with those claims of birtherism ,” he said. Hughley, who in the late 1990s toured with Harvey as part of the popular “Kings of Comedy,” said Trump was more comfortable with black entertainers. “You’d rather see us run the football than run the country.”
Elroy Sailor, one of a trio of black political strategists who worked with the Republican National Committee during the election, said he believes that the Trump administration and the GOP Congress will produce policies and programs beneficial to black communities.
“I believe there is a 100 percent commitment to try to address not only the challenges, but to expand opportunities in our communities and grow our communities,” said Sailor, who also said he is close friends with Lewis’s chief of staff and will work to mend fences.
So far Trump has nominated only one African American for a Cabinet position: retired pediatric neurosurgeon Ben Carson, as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Harvey told reporters that Trump asked him to work with Carson on inner-city issues.
Some political observers say Carson’s appointment is an indication that Trump is not serious about improving the lives of people in struggling communities.
Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University, said that in touting Carson and Harvey as his urban policy team, Trump is practicing “affirmative action in the worst sense of that term.”
“Steve Harvey is a talented comedian but he is not a politician, a policy maker. He nor Carson have any expertise in the issues they will oversee,” Dyson said. “This is really nothing more than an attempted end run around serious engagement and an example of the kind of visionary bankruptcy of President-elect Trump.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.