BROOKLYN, New York City — During annual celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday and over the weekend, there were few prominent civil rights leaders, politicians or academics who gave remarks without addressing President Donald Trump’s recent comments about Haitians and immigrants from African nations.
In New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Atlanta — where King’s children run a foundation in their father’s memory — speakers blasted Trump for reportedly advocating an immigration policy that favors white immigrants over those from “shithole countries” in the Caribbean and on the African continent.
The president allegedly made the disparaging remarks on Thursday during a meeting with a bipartisan group of lawmakers regarding a legislative fix for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program that protects young undocumented immigrants from deportation. The meeting also included discussions about the status of Haitians and El Salvadorans who have temporary protected status in the U.S.
Trump later denied using the expletive in reference to immigrants of color.
“When a president insists that our nation needs more citizens from white states like Norway, I don’t even think we need to spend any time even talking about what it says and what it is,” Martin Luther King III, the late civil rights leader’s eldest son, said Monday in front of his father’s memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“We got to find a way to work on this man’s heart,” King III said.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence was at Metropolitan Baptist Church in Largo, Maryland, on Sunday when pastor Maurice Watson gave the president a tongue-lashing. Watson used his sermon to call Trump’s remarks “ugly” and “dehumanizing,” the Associated Press reported.
“Whoever made such a statement ... is wrong and they ought to be held accountable,” Watson said as a reportedly red-faced Pence looked on.
Pence laid a wreath at the King memorial the same day.
At multiple events across the nation, Trump’s immigration comments served as a rallying call for speakers who hoped to inspire others to continue King Jr.’s legacy. However, 2018’s celebrations also came on a significant milestone of the civil rights icon’s life and work. The year not only marks 50 years since King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, but also 50 years since he marched with black sanitation workers in support of better wages and working conditions. That demonstration is widely considered the launch of King Jr.’s seminal work on socioeconomic inequality.
On Friday, some of King Jr.’s relatives joined Trump at the White House for the signing of a proclamation honoring the civil rights activist. During the event, King Jr.’s nephew, Isaac Newton Farris Jr., echoed the president’s call for Americans to use the holiday for community service.
“It’s not a day to hang out in the park or pull out the barbecue grill,” Farris said Friday, one day after Trump’s “shithole countries” comments were reported by the Washington Post. “It’s a day to do something to help someone else, and that can be as simple as delivering someone’s trash or picking up the newspaper for that elderly person who can’t get to the end of the driveway.”
“No, no, I’m not a racist,” Trump told reporters, according to an AP report. “I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed.”
However, Trump’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Day in office draws a stark contrast to those observed by former President Barack Obama, who often began the day performing community service with his family.
On Monday, Obama tweeted that King Jr.’s example is an “inspiration for the rest of us to keep pushing towards justice.”
At the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s 32nd annual tribute to King Jr., a gospel choir stirred the multilevel theater and the academy’s president, Katy Clark, declared to rousing applause that the event was open to immigrants, “especially those from Haiti and Africa.”
Local elected officials and senators who spoke at the event didn’t shy away from mentioning Trump. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the president “should know better” than to use the language he allegedly used in reference to immigration.
“We are telling Donald Trump and all the bigots of this country, ‘We will not wait for justice!’” Schumer said.
“We have to call out [Trump’s] racist comments for what they are and fight back,” Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) told BAM’s packed theater.
The event’s keynote speaker, journalist and Columbia University professor Jelani Cobb, put Trump’s comments about Haiti and African nations in the context of centuries-old atrocities of colonialism and slavery.
“I lament the moment that a man like Dr. King is memorialized by a man like the president,” Cobb said.
In Los Angeles, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) served as grand marshal of the city’s 33rd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Kingdom Day Parade. Although she did not mention Trump by name, she did allude to his immigration remarks.
“Certainly, we know that we are living in dark times when we have supposed leaders who are thriving, who are politically profiting off of sowing hate and vision in our country,” Harris said during a breakfast program before the parade. “We know we are living in dark times when we look at whole communities of people who are being belittled and denigrated and insulted.
“2018 is our year,” Harris continued. “It is our year to get out there and own the words that Dr. King spoke and to understand he didn’t want us to reflect on him only in the rear-view mirror. ... And that’s what we are doing now.”