President Trump gave a fleeting, low-key nod to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the civil rights hero’s national holiday Monday, while Democrats who may run against Trump in 2020 fanned out to public events across the nation for more fulsome tributes.
The contrast served as a reminder both of Trump’s troubled record on race relations, and of how central black voters will be in choosing the Democratic Party’s nominee to unseat him. One aspirant, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, chose the day to announce her candidacy; she likely will be the only black woman in what’s becoming a crowded party contest.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who has been weighing a 2020 bid, used his appearance at a Washington event to criticize Trump’s impact on race relations, and acknowledged to a mostly black audience that whites are often blind to the racism around them.
“We’ve learned in the last two years it doesn’t take much to awaken hate,” Biden said, speaking at a memorial hosted by civil rights activist Al Sharpton. “White America has to admit there’s still a systematic racism — and it goes almost unnoticed by so many of us.”
For Biden and other actual and potential presidential candidates, the holiday was an opportunity to demonstrate their support for a community and set of issues that will be central to unseating a president they view as stoking and exploiting racial divisions.
For decades, Martin Luther King Jr. Day typically has been an occasion for bipartisan paeans not only to King, but also to racial equality and community service. Past presidents often engaged in public, high-profile gestures to memorialize the civil rights leader, who was assassinated in 1968 and would have turned 90 this month.
But as Monday dawned, the White House had announced no official events for Trump to mark the federal holiday honoring King.
Sharpton called that “an insult to the American people,” and the White House came under heavy fire on social media. By late morning, Trump put out a Twitter message of tribute and, with Vice President Mike Pence, paid a two-minute visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to lay a wreath.
On Twitter, he said: “Today we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.”
Democrats’ messages against racism were a measure of how much more focused the party is on the problem even after electing the first black president a decade ago Monday. Just four years ago, it was considered bold and somewhat controversial for Democratic candidates to talk about systemic racism as bluntly as they are now.
“We don’t even consciously acknowledge it,” said Biden, who has faced criticism for supporting 1990s anti-crime laws that subsequently were seen as disproportionately hurting blacks, “but it's been built into every aspect of our system." Biden acknowledged the laws had been a “big mistake,” and reminded the audience that he'd worked with President Obama to undo some.
While many Democratic strategists want to give high priority in 2020 to winning back support from white working-class voters in the Midwest, where Trump scored upset victories, others warn that the party cannot take the loyalty of black voters for granted. In 2016, a decline in turnout among black voters in battleground states was a factor in Trump’s ability to eke out victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Black women, in particular, will be key to winning the Democratic Party’s nomination. Harris declared her candidacy in an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” a program popular with women. And by following her announcement with a press briefing at Howard University, the historically black college in Washington that is her alma mater, Harris made clear that her racial identity would be a pillar of her campaign — a contrast with former President Obama, who played down his race.
“We are a diverse country, yes,” she said at Howard. “And some people would suggest that in diversity, when there is a diverse population, that we cannot achieve unity. I reject that notion.”
Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont marched together and attended a King memorial service in Columbia, S.C., a key early-voting state where black voters made up nearly two-thirds of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016.
Sanders, who won just 14% of the black vote in the state’s 2016 primary and has been working to improve his standing among African Americans, excoriated Trump from the steps of the statehouse. “I must tell you, it gives me no pleasure to tell you that we now have a president of the United States who is a racist," he said.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who announced her campaign last week, appeared at another Sharpton-sponsored tribute in the afternoon. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts attended an event in Boston.
The parade of Democrats honoring King paid homage to party unity, but that might not last long as they plunge into a long, potentially divisive primary.
At the Washington event Biden attended, he sat at the head table with former New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, another potential candidate, who alluded to the uncertainty for both about their plans for 2020: “Whatever the next year brings for Joe and me, I know we’ll both keep our eyes on the real prize, and that is electing a Democrat to the White House in 2020.”
The president they seek to defeat provided another illustration of how much he is willing to depart from tradition, with his perfunctory acknowledgement of a holiday that presidents of both parties generally have observed with more fanfare since President Ronald Reagan in 1983 signed legislation establishing it.
In 1989, President George H.W. Bush made King's widow, Coretta Scott King, a permanent member of the Martin Luther King Jr. Federal Holiday Commission, which oversees the observation of the annual holiday. His son George W. Bush hosted a ceremony in the White House East Room in 2002 at which Mrs. King, who died in 2006, presented her husband’s portrait to hang in the White House.
President Bill Clinton signed legislation in 1994 making the holiday a national day of service, encouraging Americans to volunteer to do community service projects. Since then, presidents have led by example, engaging in volunteer work on the holiday.
Clinton once helped AmeriCorps volunteers with renovations of a senior center, President George W. Bush helped students at a Washington high school paint a mural as a school improvement project, and Obama served lunch at a Washington soup kitchen in 2010, helped distribute books at an elementary school in 2016 and assisted with a mural of King at a local shelter in 2017.
Trump has yet to participate in such a service project to mark the holiday. Last year, he spent it at Mar-a-Lago, his West Palm Beach estate. He spent Monday at the White House, where he has secluded himself during the month-old partial government shutdown. Officials called a “lid” for reporters — meaning he would have no further activities for the day — before noon.