Tomorrow, January 16, is Martin Luther King day here in the States, honoring the memory of the civil rights leader. This federal holiday has been observed since 1986 and is always on the third Monday in January (close to King’s actual birthday on the 15th). It has also become known as a Day of Service, “a day on, not a day off,” because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
MLK Day is something quintessentially American — turning the shameful history of oppression of African Americans into a day that actively honors a civil rights leader by “doing something good.” Check out http://www.mlkdayofservce.org for some of the events going on in this region.
Making this a Day of Service was started a little over 20 years ago by then-U.S. Senator Harris Wofford (Democrat, Pennsylvania) and Atlanta Congressman John Lewis. They co-authored the King Holiday and Service Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in August 1994, which challenges all Americans to honor King’s memory with a day of citizen volunteer action. Local churches, mosques, temples, and synagogues may sponsor day-long events such as assembling care packages for the homeless; shelters and community service organizations hold fundraisers and clean-up events.
But this year, the day has been overshadowed by yet another Trump tweet fiasco. Every time DT does something appalling you think “how can this get worse?” and then it does. This time, he went after John Lewis, an honored scion of the civil rights movement.
Congressman John Lewis — yes, the same man who co-sponsored the Day of Service legislation — is one of a handful of Democratic Party members of Congress who have announced they will not be attending DT’s inauguration on the 20th.
In a TV interview released on Friday, Lewis said: “I don’t see this President-elect as a legitimate president.” DT, predictably, took to Twitter in response, saying on Saturday: ”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. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad.”
To understand just how appalling this is, you need to know who John Lewis is: He was the youngest of the “Big Six” leaders of the 1963 March on Washington, when he was chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a key part of the civil rights movement. Before that, he had been one of the 13 original Freedom Riders — frequently beaten by mobs and arrested, for campaigning to uphold the desegregation of interstate bus travel.
The following two pictures are taken from my copy of the book “Eyes on the Prize” by Juan Williams.
In March 1965, John Lewis was beaten by Alabama State troopers at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama (a day known in the history of the civil rights movement as Bloody Sunday). His skull was fractured; his head still bears the scars. He has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional district since 1987 — re-elected 14 times. This man has “walked the walk” as much as any human being could.
This picture is from the Associated Press, 1965
You have to wonder whether DT really is this stupid, or whether this was an attempt to distract us all from the story “leaked” (pun intended) by Buzzfeed earlier in the week — you know the one, about the alleged blackmail-worthy dossier that the Kremlin is using to exercise a hold over DT. As a distraction, it failed utterly. The whole Golden Showers thing is just a gift to every comedian in the country.
And as a backdrop to all this, we have the ongoing confirmation hearing for DT’s nominee for the post of Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, a Republican Senator from Alabama. The Attorney General is the head of the US Department of Justice and essentially the government’s chief lawyer. Sessions’ nomination has drawn widespread outrage: in 1986, his nomination to a federal judgeship was rejected by a US Senate committee because he had made numerous racist statements, including referring to civil rights groups as “un-American” and trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.” He opposes the Voting Rights Act, and has a history of supporting anti-immigration legislation.
Even his full name is cringe-worthy: Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was named (after his father and grandfather) for Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, and General P.G.T. Beauregard, commander of the first Confederate army at Fort Sumter, at the start of the American Civil War. Incredibly, these names are still fairly common among certain families in the southern USA.
On so many levels, this confluence of news stories just beggars belief. I keep expecting to wake up from this dystopian nightmare and discover that reality has resumed. But no such luck.
Incidentally, there is one excellent side effect of all this: Lewis’s books on the civil rights movement have suddenly become hot items — “Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement” and “March,” a graphic-novel trilogy about the civil rights movement, were listed as “temporarily out of stock” on Amazon Sunday.