I was a high school student in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1986, the first year Martin Luther King Day was observed as a federal holiday. Just not in Utah. Utah voted that year to observe “Human Rights Day” on the third Monday in January instead, because of opposition to honoring Dr. King. Prominent Republicans at the time attacked King, accusing him of being divisive and extremist.
We students marched and walked out of schools. We protested because that was the lesson King taught us.
Ultimately Utah became the last state to officially celebrate the legacy of the most recognized moral figure in U.S. history in 2000, when the legislature finally changed Human Rights Day to Martin Luther King Day.
The 20-year struggle to win a state holiday for a Black historical figure demonstrates that Black history is highly political and contested. Even today, the recognition that Black History in American history is not a given.
Which brings me to President Donald Trump’s remarks on the first day of Black History Month.
“Last month, we celebrated the life of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history,” Trump said following a meeting with African American leaders. He continued,
You read all about Dr. Martin Luther King a week ago when somebody said I took the statue out of my office. It turned out that that was fake news. Fake news. The statue is cherished, it’s one of the favorite things in the—and we have some good ones. We have Lincoln, and we have Jefferson, and we have Dr. Martin Luther King. But they said the statue, the bust of Martin Luther King, was taken out of the office. And it was never even touched. So I think it was a disgrace, but that’s the way the press is. Very unfortunate.
Ignoring the typical jumble of words and sentences, Trump’s remarks on Black history are largely comments about his own greatness and the unfairness of the news media towards him. His main comment about Dr. King is about how the press accused him of removing his bust from the oval office. He said not a word about what Dr. King actually did, what he stood for, or why we might be honoring him. It is not even clear that Trump knows who Dr. King was besides a bust in his office.
There is always a danger of any official history becoming a caricature of the truth, a sanitized version of history. Trump’s version of Black history is not even the sanitized King of Washington commemorations and glossy ad campaigns. Trump’s version of Black history is just a passing nod to some familiar names with no content at all, sanitized or not.
What makes Trump’s remarks so laughable and offensive to African Americans is that Trump’s history of indifference and hostility to Black people renders the posture of respecting Black heritage completely false.
Trump as a real estate magnate has history of facing lawsuits for housing discrimination. Trump infamously spent $85,000 placing full-page ads in all four major New York daily newspapers calling for the death penalty for the innocent and later exonerated “Central Park five.” He routinely disparages Black communities as war zones, saying “I mean, honestly, places like Afghanistan are safer than some of our inner cities.” He also says Black communities are “absolutely in the worst shape that they’ve ever been in before, ” ignoring slavery and Jim Crow. His actual experience with Black people is basically a string of photo ops with Black celebrities over the decades.
And of course, his policies will be disastrous for Black people. He has called for “law and order” and emboldening police at a time when Black communities are enraged over police violence. He wants to destroy public sector jobs, one of the few places where African Americans can get quality jobs without discrimination in hiring. Not to mention that he has never sufficiently rejected the white supremacist organizations and leaders who have praised his campaign and policies.
Here is a president who has made no moves to meet with actual Black political leadership or civil rights organizations, but gathers his closest group of African American cronies for a media opportunity under the banner of “Black History Month.” It was just a show. He was flanked by reality TV personality Omarosa, and newly confirmed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who Trump apparently thinks is the secretary of Black America. The event was a stunt.
Of course Black people—and just about everyone else—have responded to Trump’s awkward Black History Month speech with outrage and mockery. Many pointed out that Trump implied that 19th Century Black abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass is still alive. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed,” said Trump.
Trump’s speech even spawned a viral meme on Black Twitter with its own hashtag, #TrumpBlackHistory, featuring examples of out-of-touch misconceptions of Black History using Trump’s language.
It’s hard for me to laugh about any of this. Because it’s really not funny that the president of our country doesn’t have a clue about the crucial and essential history of Black America. Or that he doesn’t know the history of this country. He doesn’t know its current reality either. And that’s no laughing matter.
It wasn’t that long ago that we struggled to have Black History recognized as valid and worth teaching and learning. Now Trump has reduced it to a rote obligation with little meaning. It’s up to all of us to learn Dr. King’s lessons again and teach the president of the United States how Black people make history.