For Some, the Transition from Obama to Trump Is a ‘Step Back’ from Civil Rights Victory


The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat across from the BBC’s Robert McKenzie in 1964 and tried to predict the future.

“Let me say first I think it’s necessary to make it clear that there are Negroes who are presently qualified to be president of the United States. There are many who are qualified in terms of integrity, in terms of vision, in terms of leadership ability. But we do know there are certain problems and prejudices and mores in our society which make it difficult now.

“However, I am very optimistic about the future. Frankly, I have seen certain changes in the United States over the last two years that have surprised me. I have seen levels of compliance with the civil rights bill and changes that have been most surprising. On the basis of this, I believe we may be able to get a Negro president in less than 40 years. I would think this could come in 25 years or less.”

His timeline was slightly off, but his sentiment was spot on. In 2008, the election of Barack Obama was hailed as big a civil rights victory as grand as any that came before.

But to people like Akwasi Osei, the election of Donald Trump as president appears to be a step backward.

“For some of us who were hoping to go into a future with a woman president, where America was going to tell the world not only do we always strive to be better but we have actually made it better, we’re trying to live out our hopes and our dreams and our promise, now we can’t tell the world to do that when we do the opposite,” Osei said. “What do you think Martin Luther King Jr. would say about Mr. Trump?”

The birthday of the civil rights legend falls this year only days before the departure of the nation’s first black president and the ascendancy of one mired in racial controversy. On a day set aside to remember an American dream, citizens are experiencing a modern hinge of history.

“It’s going to reverse everything, everything the civil rights leaders tried to build, everything that Obama has built,” said Ahnazya Moore, who was only 9 when the first black president took office. “We’re not going to be moving forward. We’re going to be moving backwards.”

One of those civil rights leaders is John Lewis, a longtime Georgia congressman who represents most of Atlanta and who marched with King in Selma, Ala., in 1965, when he was beaten by police. Last week he questioned Trump’s legitimacy as president while accusations of Russian influence on the campaign continue to grow. Lewis became the target of one of Trump’s famous “counter punches” via Twitter.

“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,” Trump tweeted Saturday.

That comment has since been widely panned with leaders around the country — political and otherwise — calling it a tone-deaf attack right before the federal holiday centered around the movement in which Lewis is a legend.

“Ahead of #MLKday2017, let us remember that many have tried to silence @repjohnlewis over the years. All have failed,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tweeted Saturday.

Osei, head of Delaware State University’s history and political science programs, is an expert in the racial politics of America’s past and is one of the 92% of black voters who supported Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Maybe this year, more than any other, he said it is right to talk politics on the holiday honoring King’s birth.

“It is the presidency that all Americans look to for direction, for hope, for some kind of emotional sustenance and for leadership,” Osei said. “That is what we need to be talking about on Martin Luther King’s birthday. I don’t want to talk about ‘I Have a Dream.’ I refuse to talk about ‘I Have a Dream.’ We can’t keep on dreaming. We have to live.”

But there was a time when the past eight years still sounded like a dream.

“A decade ago when I taught (a class called Black Politics in America), the theme was whether a person of African descent could ever be president of these United States. I can tell you in the Spring of 2007 when Mr. Obama was thinking about running and then announced, the class, including the teacher — me — believed it couldn’t be possible in our lifetime,” Osei said. “You can imagine the euphoria. Clearly, the history did not portend that.”

In 2008, a Pew Research Center survey of voters after Election Day found 75% of black voters said Obama’s election would lead to better race relations. A poll conducted in June showed only 51% of black Americans believe Obama has made progress on that front.

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Source: USA TODAY | Adam Duvernay