TONE DEAF

'Like Bull Connor, But With More Bull’: Donald Trump Picks Fight with Civil Rights Legend John Lewis on MLK Weekend

Just two days before MLK Day and just six before he takes office, Donald Trump spent his Saturday ripping into a man who bled so all Americans were treated equally.

01.14.17 9:36 PM ET

President-elect Donald Trump would start a fight in an empty broom closet. As a candidate in the Republican primary and then later in a hard fought campaign against Hillary Clinton, the former real-estate developer exuded precious little grace—preferring brickbats to olive branches. Without question, Trump is far less prone to rise above the bar of decency than he is to slither beneath it.

In a mere six days he will rest his briefcase in the Oval Office, where he will face a myriad of critical issues—both foreign and domestic. However, if his latest skirmish on social media is any indication, Trump will step onto the world stage and come face-to-face with his most formidable foe: himself.

His latest outburst—an attack on Congressman John Lewis just before the nation celebrates Martin Luther King Day—drew consternation from both sides of the aisle and social media erupted with indignation. That’s because Lewis was not only a King foot soldier. He was president of the Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee (SNCC) and is the youngest and only living member of “The Big Six.” Lewis was one of the original 13 Freedom Riders, young people who risked their lives to challenge racial segregation in the South. He was arrested 45 times, beaten and bloodied in the name of human rights.

After one of the most divisive national contests this country has endured and with looming suspicions of Russian intervention, Lewis declared that he would not attend the upcoming inauguration. In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Lewis—clearly angered by intelligence briefings—said he did not see the former reality show personality as a “legitimate president.”

That, of course, did not sit well with Trump.

He might have responded with some modicum of grace, urging the country to come together in perilous times. He might have thanked the venerated civil rights icon for his service, affirmed his own commitment to human rights and welcomed Lewis to meet with him to discuss the issues. I mean, if he has time for Ray Lewis, Steve Harvey, and Kanye West, surely there is room on the calendar for someone who is steeped in public policy and who possesses decades of experience both building and crossing bridges.

Instead, Trump hit back in a pair of outlandish tweets, he saying, “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,” Trump concluded. “Sad!”

That Trump would respond in such a feckless and disconnected manner should surprise no one. That he appears to have a nascent understanding of our nation’s history—and Lewis’s critical role—should not raise an eyebrow. With skin as thin as unsweetened tea, surrounding himself with sycophants who dare not question him, it is abundantly clear that he has spent no time thinking about who Lewis is and even less time in Atlanta.

Lewis’s “results” are a proliferation of human rights, as well as increased economic and political opportunity. He was on the right side of history when it came to LGBT and reproductive rights, among other issues. In 1994, when the country was caught up in hysteria and pushed a crime bill that later destroyed whole communities, John Lewis was one of only eleven black members of the House to stand against it.

One can argue about the validity of a “dossier” strewn with behavior unbefitting the Oval Office, but there can be no dispute about the “good trouble” Lewis has gotten himself into over the course of his adult life. One of the “results” of his activism was the Fair Housing Act, the very legislation under which the Justice Department sued Donald Trump and his father.

While Trump was getting repeated military deferments for his sore feet, Lewis’s feet were on the avenues, highways and byways attempting to fashion a more inclusive society.

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Let's be clear: Georgia’s 5th Congressional district is thriving. Comprised by a large swath of the city and cutting through two counties, it is home to the Georgia governor’s mansion, Spelman and Morehouse Colleges, Georgia Tech, the Buckhead business and entertainment district, and the world’s most travelled airport—Hartsfield Jackson International. Home to Fortune 500 companies, the district is both racially and economically diverse.

Migration to Atlanta from other regions of the country over last three decades tells a story of growing, comparatively broad based prosperity.

Like every other big city in America, public safety is a priority for local leaders. However, Atlanta is certainly not “infested” with crime. And nothing about my city says it is “falling apart.” In fact, just as the city seal implies, Atlanta has been rising from the ashes since General Sherman burned down the west end.

Lewis has been at the forefront of those renewal efforts since the day he was sworn in as a city councilman in the early 70s. Maynard Jackson became the city’s first black mayor that year and, together with many others, they began re-imagining what the region could be—a world’s class city, a city “too busy to hate.”

We’re still working on that. But, our progress has depended on real leadership from servant-leaders like Congressman Lewis. He’s 76 now and it’s unfortunate that he won’t be here 76 more years.

The truth is Donald Trump is a lot like Bull Connor, only with much more bull. Connor, the Birmingham public service commissioner Lewis and others took on as Freedom Riders, at least understood the math. Trump is walking into the White House based on a 70,000 vote margin across three states. That’s no mandate. That’s a fluke.

Maybe someone should have warned Trump about his behavior when he attended a fundraiser in Atlanta a few months back. The event was held at a Charlie Loudermilk’s mansion in Buckhead—one of the very largest and most beautiful private residences in the city. It sits right in Lewis’s 5th Congressional District. 

There is some irony in the fact that Trump didn’t raise much money that night. After all, a planned Trump Tower was to be erected in Midtown some years ago. But, just like his broadside against Lewis, that failed too.