On Wednesday morning, February 1, President Trump held a Black History Month “listening session” at the White House with a handpicked representation of African Americans who, judging from their brief comments, all seemed to be Trump supporters. Trump bested the 2012 Republican candidate, winning 8 percent of the Black vote as opposed to 6 percent for Mitt Romney, according to exit polls, yet it must not have been easy to find enough people for a camera to photograph. Trump, it will be recalled, was forced to settle a major housing discrimination case brought by the Department of Justice in the 1970s on charges that his organization would not rent apartments to black prospective tenants.
The select group of invitees included Dr. Ben Carson, Trump’s appointee as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the only African American poised to join the president’s Cabinet. Carson has stated in the past that fair housing laws to deter discrimination are a “mandated social-engineering scheme,” and that government is not in business to “legislate racial equality.” That, he has said, could be “downright dangerous.” He has also declared his belief that poverty is a choice.
Other guests were religious leaders and political officials, as well as Omarosa Manigault, one of Trump’s “Apprentice” TV reality show contestants who is now an assistant to the president as director of communications for the Office of Public Liaison.
Noticeably absent were representatives of any mass organizations such as the NAACP or the National Urban League, or African American members of Congress. A search of the White House website yielded this message: “Sorry, no results found for ‘Declaration on Black History Month.’” Past presidents have regularly issued formal annual declarations.
As Trump greeted each of his guests by name, the most salient aspect about them that he could cite was how much they did for his presidential campaign.
In Trump’s prepared remarks, it was immediately evident that the President is woefully ignorant of African American history. He is well known for not caring to read books. He dropped the names of a few prominent individuals, such as Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman, and had this to say about the Rev. King:
“Last month we celebrated the life of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose incredible example is unique in American history. 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, and we have other. But they said the statue, the bust, of Dr. 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.”
Apparently the most significant way Trump could find to comment on the incomparable civil rights and economic justice legacy of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dr. King was to continue his attack on the media.
Trump took note of the new National Museum of African American History & Culture, without giving its name, saying it’s a place “where people can learn about Rev. King, so many other things…. Frederick Doug — Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”
“I notice?” What does the president notice about Frederick Douglass? Seemingly only that he commands a certain buzz. It’s a fool’s errand, of course, to parse Trump’s utterances for grammar, but nevertheless, for what it’s worth: “Somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more” implies that Douglass is still alive and getting a lot of positive media attention, though Trump doesn’t exactly say why.
He speaks of Douglass’ “amazing job” the way George W. Bush referred to his political supporter Michael D. Brown, whom he appointed director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As the waters from Hurricane Katrina continued to rise in New Orleans in August of 2005, Bush gushed, “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva a job.”
It should have been evident to those present for this “listening session” that Trump was not the one listening, but rather he who wanted his guests to listen to his own self-aggrandizement.
So, for the benefit of Mr. Trump and anyone else who might appreciate a little refresher course on the great 19th-century former slave who became one of America’s most charismatic orators and impassioned writers about emancipation, freedom and democracy, here are a few memorable quotes from the speeches and writings of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). They’re pretty amazing:
Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
If there is no struggle, there is no progress.
Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.
When men sow the wind it is rational to expect that they will reap the whirlwind.
It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.
Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.
No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.
It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.
People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get.
The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppose.
Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.
Video excerpts of President Trump addressing his listening session can be seen here.