Donald Trump honored the sacrifice of black civil rights pioneers in remarks at the opening of a Mississippi museum boycotted by black lawmakers and others who said the president’s conduct in office has been an affront to the movement.
The civil rights museum’s displays underlined the “oppression, cruelty and injustice inflicted on the African American community,” Trump said in a 10-minute speech at the Museum of Mississippi History and Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson.
The president spent about 40 minutes at the museums, including his remarks, accompanied by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, a Republican, and Housing Secretary Ben Carson, among others. He flew in Saturday from his club in Palm Beach, Florida, and returned there after the event.
The president paid tribute to the “Christian pastors who started the civil rights movement,” including Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, whom Trump said he’d “admired all my life,” and civil rights leaders such as Medgar Evers, whose brother Charles, 95, a former Republican mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, spoke to the president on the tarmac of the Jackson airport.
Killed by KKK
Medgar Evers “was assassinated by a member of the KKK in the driveway of his own home,” Trump said. He added that at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where Evers was buried, “headstones do not mark the color of their skin but immortalize the courage of their deeds.”
Charles Evers, an early Trump supporter during the 2016 campaign, said he thanked the president for coming, and offered his congratulations for the economic improvements he said would benefit all Americans. Evers said he hadn’t seen much of a change in race relations since Trump’s election, and thought the president’s speech Saturday hit all the right notes.
“He was very, very, very, very welcome,” Evers said in a phone interview. “I think people enjoyed it, and I’m proud of it. I’m so proud he came.” For his part, Trump said at the museum that he liked Charles Evers a lot: “He was so nice.”
Representative John Lewis of Georgia, a hero of the civil rights movement, and Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi canceled their appearances at the museum opening because of Trump’s decision to attend.
The two Democratic lawmakers said in a statement that “President Trump’s attendance and his hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.” The NAACP also called on Trump to cancel his plans to attend, saying his appearance at the ceremony would be divisive.
Trump’s visit to the museum came less than 24 hours after the president held a rally in Pensacola, Florida, where he publicly endorsed Roy Moore, the controversial Alabama U.S. Senate candidate.
Speaking in northern Florida, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Alabama state line, Trump urged the crowed to “Get out and vote for Roy Moore.” Trump tweeted support for the former Alabama judge again early Saturday.
Moore has been criticized by civil rights leaders, most recently for remarks that resurfaced this week in which he said the last time America was great was during the period of slavery. Moore said at a September rally that the nation “was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
Moore has also made controversial statements in the past that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress and that homosexual behavior should be illegal.
For his part, Trump was widely criticized in August for his response to violent, racially-charged protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, saying that “both sides” shared blame for the incidents. He’s also faced pressure to more strongly condemn white supremacists who support him.
Most recently, Trump has been criticized for singling out athletes, many of whom are black, for kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games as a protest against police brutality against minorities.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday it was “unfortunate that these members of Congress wouldn’t join the President in honoring the incredible sacrifice civil rights leaders made to right the injustices in our history.”
Lewis, 77, was a leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders who challenged segregation on interstate buses in a ride across the South in 1960, and one of the organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. In a 1965 march for voting rights, Lewis was beaten and had his skull fractured by state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The melee, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” sparked national outrage leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
— With assistance by Anna Edgerton