Today, January 15, 2018, marks the 35th anniversary of national celebration of the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As King’s widow Coretta Scott King observed, "This is not a black holiday; it is a people's holiday," She spoke these words after President Ronald Reagan signed the King Holiday Bill into law on Nov. 2, 1983.
She couldn’t have known how prescient her words were and that Dr. King’s message of love and tolerance is needed in America more than ever. King was a brilliant scholar, a gifted orator, and a bridge builder who reached across ethnic, religious, and racial lines to lift all downtrodden Americans and challenge long-held prejudices.
But in 2018, we are marking the first year in office of President Donald Trump, who was elected on a platform of overt appeals to racism and white supremacy and continues to invoke vulgar and crass language in discussions about race and gender. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: on the campaign trail, Trump said Mexicans are “murderers and rapists” and described African American neighborhoods as “more dangerous than the war zones.”
Just last week, on the eve of MLK Day, we got wind of his latest firebomb. In a series of overtly racist comments, in a public meeting with members of Congress, Trump grew frustrated with lawmakers gathered in the Oval Office, and while discussing protecting immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, Trump apparently said – and I say apparently because it’s hard to imagine a U.S. President uttering these words: “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” and “Why do we need more Haitians? ….Take them out.” He followed that up with the suggestion that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway. White people, in other words.
What a wrenching time this is for America. We have a massive leadership vacuum in the White House and in Congress; indeed, while many Democrats denounced Trump’s comments, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and GOP chair Ronna McDaniel were silent. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) called Trump’s comments “very unfortunate,” and Sen. Marco Rubio posted a long Twitter thread about the many ways Haitians have made an impact in the United States.
And while some Republicans at the meeting denied hearing the comments, Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — who also attended the meeting — confirmed that the media’s reporting of Trump’s remarks was “basically accurate.” But only Sen. Graham told Trump his comments were unacceptable.
Fighting racism and bigotry used to be seen as a bipartisan cause. The National Consumers League’s history is one of championing racial equality; Florence Kelley participated in the founding meetings of the NAACP and worked with another republican icon, President Teddy Roosevelt, who had some old-fashioned ideas on race but did warn that “the debasement of the blacks will in the end carry with it [the] debasement of the whites.”
When President Ronald Reagan, a Republican icon, signed the MLK bill into law, he gave an eloquent speech citing King’s contributions:
…traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the Commandments he believed in and sought to live every day: if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those Commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true, and in his words, "All of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning, '... Thank you, God bless you, and I will sign it.
President Reagan finished with this:
All right-thinking people, all right-thinking Americans are joined in spirit with us this day as the highest recognition which this nation gives is bestowed upon Martin Luther King, Jr., one who also was the recipient of the highest recognition which the world bestows, the Nobel Peace Prize.
This eloquent and bipartisan message is more important today than ever. I only wish Republican leaders take note of the bold statement their iconic President made 35 years ago when he established this the MLK Jr. holiday and mark his commitment to racial justice and equality for all Americans.