A shocking exchange of words in the last few days reminds us that our precious right to freedom of speech is truly our last best hope to stand against injustice, oppression and tyranny. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., knew the power of speech and expression so well, and indeed, he changed the course of history with the only weapons he would use, his words and his actions. He paid the ultimate price for defending the rights and liberties of Black Americans in the long and unending battles over racial justice and civil rights. His example dares us to keep raising our voices, to refuse the comfort of silence, because the battles continue.
The shocking exchange of words took place between Congressman John Lewis, our nation’s greatest living hero of the Civil Rights Movement, and President-Elect Donald J. Trump whose election included support from the KKK and white supremacists. It’s no secret that the election of Trump has broken wide-open the 50-year-old social compact of this nation to work together for racial justice. Rooted in the horrors of slavery, stained with the blood of grievous violent oppression, civil war, KKK murderous rampages and lynchings, and ongoing racial oppression in some places even today, the quest for racial justice and a peace that was Dr. King’s “Dream” was never complete, but we had hoped it had moved to a more progressive platform. But as a candidate for the presidency, Mr. Trump did nothing to distance himself from his supporters in the KKK, Alt-Right and other white supremacist groups, and his nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to be Attorney General signals President Trump’s eagerness to roll back the clock on voting rights and civil rights.
The immediate clash between Congressman Lewis and Mr. Trump occurred when Mr. Lewis said in an interview on NBC News that, because of the impact the Russian hacking had on the election results, he would not attend the presidential inauguration because, “I don’t see this president-elect as a legitimate president.”
Certainly, people may disagree with Congressman Lewis’s point of view on this issue, but make no mistake: he is free to express this opinion and he has good reason to do so.
However, the famously thin-skinned President-Elect Trump, unable to let any criticism go by without an outraged tweet, immediately took to Twitter to trash talk John Lewis, saying he was “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results!” and that his “district is in horrible shape and falling apart” and that Mr. Lewis “should finally focus on the burning and crime-infested inner cities of the U.S.”
So many things are wrong with Mr. Trump’s response to Mr. Lewis. Perhaps the best analysis came from Michael Gerson, a Republican and former top aide/speechwriter for President George W. Bush who now is a columnist for the Washington post, who wrote that Mr. Trump’s response to Congressman Lewis is “…the essence of narcissism.”
Gerson goes on: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter. He will lead a nation that accommodated a cruel exception to its founding creed; that bled and nearly died to recover its ideals; and that was only fully redeemed by the courage and moral clarity of the very people it had oppressed. People like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. People like John Lewis…..A broader conception of the American story — a respect for the heroes and ghosts of our history — is absent in Trump’s public voice.”
Mr. Trump’s agnosticism of American history, rights and liberties is dangerous. His constant disparagement and belittling of people who disagree with him — whether a comedy show like Saturday Night Live or a grieving Gold Star father like Khizr Khan, whether legendary actress Meryl Streep or CIA Chief John Brennan, — this would be offensive if he were not about to take the oath of office as president of the United States. But because of the very fact that Mr. Trump is about to become President Trump, he has a higher obligation to speak and act with care, to measure his words, to make sure that nothing he does undermines the precious rights he will soon be sworn to uphold and defend.
Mr. Trump’s constant attacks on people who dare to criticize him smack of an aggressive effort to silence opposition. He won the election; he will be the president. He needs to act like a president and not like a two-bit washed-up fighter from the back alley. He gains nothing by being small-minded; he would astonish many people and win great praise by showing generosity toward his critics and confidence in the greatness of Americans in all of their diverse and contentious glory.
The best way that Mr. Trump and our nation could honor Dr. King is to celebrate free speech and expression on behalf of racial justice and civil rights. Mr. Trump could show great leadership by apologizing to Congressman Lewis and inviting him to an honest dialogue at the White House immediately following the grand parades this week.