Trump’s rhetoric — so discordant with where many Americans are headed on issues of race — was a reminder that despite mass demonstrations in cities across America and signs of change within big corporations to show that Black lives matter, there have been very few tangible signs of progress on civil rights at the federal level since the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day.
Lewis abhorred those sorts of tactics and warned Trump against standing in the way of racial progress. One of his most memorable final acts was gaveling in the final vote of the House on the voting rights legislation in December, but it has since languished in the Senate on McConnell’s desk.
That became a flash point Saturday after McConnell tweeted that the Senate and the nation are mourning the loss of “a pioneering civil rights leader who put his life on the line to fight racism, promote equal rights, and bring our nation into greater alignment with its founding principles.”
California Sen. Kamala Harris, a top Democratic contender to be Biden’s running mate, shot back that if McConnell “really wanted to really honor the life, legacy, and activism of John Lewis, he’d bring the Voting Rights Act immediately to the Senate floor for a vote and name it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who, with Harris, co-authored the recent legislation to curb police brutality following Floyd’s death, referred to that “unfinished business” during an interview Saturday evening with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and said Lewis would have also been stung watching Republican efforts to design laws “with surgical precision to disenfranchise African Americans” in North Carolina and other states, where court battles over voting restrictions continue to rage on — including some new fights over access to the ballot during the pandemic.
When asked whether he had any hope that Lewis’ death would lead to movement on the voting rights legislation, Booker noted that McConnell has relished his role as “the grim reaper” halting bipartisan bills from the House.
“When it comes to voting rights, I don’t have confidence that this is something that he’s going to prioritize in his remaining months as majority leader,” Booker told Blitzer on “The Situation Room” Saturday night. “Where my confidence comes is our ability to, perhaps, shift the Senate and the White House. And if that happens, I know there are people of good will on both sides of the aisle who understand that this is an era where we shouldn’t be restricting the franchise, but making it more fair, equal and open.”
Trump’s tactics troubled the civil rights giant
Trump on Saturday had only a few words for Lewis, the son of sharecroppers from Pipe County, Alabama, who originally aspired to be a Baptist minister and often preached to the chickens on his father’s land.
In a two-sentence tweet, the President said he was “saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family.”
But he tweeted more than 40 times before issuing that message shortly after 2 p.m. ET Saturday — a reflection of his reluctance to recognize the life achievements of his critics, even in death — some three years after Lewis boycotted his inauguration.
“Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results,” Trump tweeted that January.
In recent weeks, Trump has engaged in the kinds of campaign tactics that Lewis decried, trying to reinvigorate the passions of his base by stoking fear about the move toward cultural change after Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests, which he have said brought chaos and violence to America’s streets.
After spending many weeks condemning the removal of the statues of racist or slave-owning figures in American history, Trump’s new central talking point is his decision to eliminate an Obama-era housing regulation aimed at desegregating the suburbs.
While he claimed at one point Saturday that his policy change was not aimed at any one racial group, his language of fear and his warnings about crime and nefarious outsiders who could infiltrate America’s suburbs have sometimes echoed that of desegregation opponents from the Jim Crow era.
Trump mentioned the Obama-era rule during three separate “telephone rallies” with supporters in Arizona, Wisconsin and Michigan this weekend, warning that electing Biden in November would lead to policies that would “abolish” the suburbs.
“They want to eliminate single family zoning, bringing — who knows — into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down,” Trump told listeners in Wisconsin and other supporters who listened to the Facebook broadcast.
“Housing prices go down, crime goes up, it’s ridiculous,” Trump said of the housing rule during the call with Michiganders Saturday, seeming to link the policy aimed at desegregation to his obsession with halting efforts to tear down statues of flawed heroes from America’s past.
“We’re going to keep America great. We’re going to keep our standards. We’re going to keep our history and our culture,” Trump said during the discussion of the housing rule on the Michigan call. “And we’re going to be proud of the people that built our country.”
Wallace famously declared, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” and two years later sent in troops who beat peaceful marchers during the landmark 1965 march in Selma. Lewis’ skull was fractured in the violence.
Trump, Lewis said in that interview, believed that stirring up those kinds of tensions “would be his ticket to the White House.”
“Many of my Republican friends fear where he can take them,” Lewis said prophetically. “They feel that it may mean the destruction of the Republican Party.”
Lewis also harkened back to the history of the civil rights era when he warned against Trump’s threat to use military force to stop the protests that followed Floyd’s death.
The congressman said that “it would be a serious mistake on the part of President Trump to use the military to stop orderly, peaceful, nonviolent protests.”
Divide in GOP reflected in reaction to Lewis’ death
Some prominent Republicans like former President George W. Bush — who worked closely with Lewis to achieve his 15-year quest of an African American museum on the National Mall — heralded Lewis’ legacy on Saturday.
“As a young man marching for equality in Selma, Alabama, John answered brutal violence with courageous hope,” Bush said in a statement. “Throughout his career as a civil rights leader and a public servant, he worked to make our country a more perfect union. America can best honor John’s memory by continuing his journey toward liberty and justice for all.”
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump, called Lewis “one of the strongest and most effective voices during the Civil Rights era.”
Some Trump acolytes like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who served alongside Lewis in the House, chose to stay silent. When DeSantis was asked to reflect on Lewis’ legacy Saturday in a press conference on coronavirus in St. Augustine, he refused.
“I appreciate the question, but we’re trying to focus on the coronavirus,” DeSantis replied, cutting off the reporter. Mirroring Trump’ strategy on the virus, DeSantis has refused to halt the reopening in his state even as the surging cases put lives at risk and inflict a much higher toll among Black Floridians.
One of Lewis’ most powerful traits was his capacity for forgiveness, embracing a Ku Klux Klan member who came to his office seeking absolution after beating Lewis as a young man.
Lewis also met with Wallace in 1979, when he said the former Alabama governor had “acknowledged his bigotry and assumed responsibility for the harm he had caused,” according to the New York Times Op-Ed that Lewis wrote.
“Hearts can change,” he said, “and we shouldn’t give up on anyone.”
So far, the President has no interest in changing his tactics, even if the rest of America has moved on without him, and efforts to divide America along racial lines are testing both the nation’s conscience and his own political fortunes in November.
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