Martin Luther King, Jr. is turning in his grave.
This year, in the cruelest of ironies, our national holiday commemorating his birth falls just four days before Barack Obama, America's first black president and an avatar of Dr. King's legacy, must transition power to an unsuitable successor who poses a grave threat to civil rights.
In the 1960s, at the height of America's Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King had a friend and mentee who was beaten repeatedly by racist white mobs while taking part in Freedom Rides across Alabama. Those rides tested the federal law banning segregation in public transportation, and drew national attention to our government's lack of response to violence against blacks who were using buses in accordance with the new law. The young black man at Dr. King's side was the chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and one of the organizers of the March on Washington, the site of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
For the past 30 years, he has served in the United States Congress, as a Representative from Georgia. His name is John Lewis. Apparently, Lewis being tear-gassed, clubbed, arrested, and beaten unconscious in his unrelenting pursuit of civil rights, and devoting his adult life to public service, doesn't impress president-elect Donald Trump. "All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!" Trump tweeted two days ago, in an indefensible moment that demonstrates his lack of respect for or understanding of our nation's history. Such ignorance of history is not only unacceptable and irresponsible for a president — it is dangerous.
Donald Trump isn't much of a reader, it seems. So perhaps he should take a trip to the movies. This weekend's biggest box office draw, Hidden Figures, offers a crash course in the indignities African-Americans faced in the 20th century. Based on a true story, the film tells the story of Katherine Johnson, a black mathematician at NASA in the 1960s, who overcame invidious workplace segregation prescribed by law, in order to design the models and calculations that put the first American, John Glenn, into orbit. Her contributions to society were nearly foreclosed because of the color of her skin. Johnson defied the odds. How many others could not? How many contributions have we lost over the years because of de facto and de jure discrimination? In 2015, Barack Obama awarded Katherine Johnson the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Today, she is 98 years old. Is Katherine Johnson, like John Lewis, "all talk" for our president-elect?
I would also refer Trump to the film Loving, which tells the story of Mildred Loving, a mixed-race black and Native American woman, and Richard Loving, the white man she married, who were jailed for violating Virginia's Racial Integrity Act. At the time, anti-miscegenation acts, enacted to perpetuate white supremacy, were the law in 16 southern states. The Lovings' story is not nearly as well-known as it should be, especially given that the Supreme Court decision overturning their convictions and finding that race-based restrictions on marriage violate the Fourteenth Amendment celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Were the Lovings, too, all talk, no action?
At a press screening for Loving, actress Ruth Negga, who portrays Mildred Loving in the film, chatted with my partner and me about present-day discrimination towards mixed-race couples. We shared with her our experiences as a same-sex interracial couple in today's society — the stares we endured and awkward interactions we faced on several cross-country roadtrips. She received our story as she had those of countless others in her travels promoting the film. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," Martin Luther King once said. As Negga, my partner, and I reflected on Dr. King's conception of the moral universe, we also recalled Barack Obama's modulation of King's words. We must bend the arc; it doesn't bend on its own. And so the timing of Hidden Figures and Loving could not be riper. The films come at a crucible moment in our nation's history to remind us of how far we've come with respect to civil rights and justice for all, how far we still have to go, and what we stand to lose under a Trump administration that does not understand or value equality and justice.
How do we know that Dr. King's legacy is imperiled by this administration? We have only to look at Trump's Cabinet picks, who are more male and white than any Cabinet since Reagan, and the fearsome beliefs those white men hold on policies affecting women and minorities. Last week, the world watched one of those picks, racist Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, appear before Congress as the nominee for U.S. Attorney General. If confirmed, Sessions will succeed trailblazer Loretta Lynch, the first African-American female to hold the position and an unflinching advocate of civil rights and equal justice for all Americans.
In the interest of space, I will not run through the innumerable examples of racial injustice in Jeff Sessions's skeleton-filled past. Suffice it to say, during his last confirmation hearing in 1986, his former colleagues testified that he used the n word and made light of the Ku Klux Klan, joking that they were acceptable to him "until he learned that they smoked marijuana." At the time, Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, felt obliged to decry Sessions's nomination for a federal judgeship. In a letter to Congress, Mrs. King wrote, "Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts," referring to Sessions's history of "politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions."
"Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters," Coretta Scott King emphasized, adding that "the irony of Mr. Sessions' nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods." And yet, we fast-forward 30 years and Donald Trump has proposed the very same man for an even higher office. It is in this manner that not knowing, not caring, or not understanding history is dangerous. More than 1400 U.S. law professors signed a letter urging the Senate to reject Sessions's nomination (including several of my own from Harvard Law School, such as the esteemed Lani Guinier and Laurence Tribe). Professor John Gross has the distinction of being the only current faculty member of Sessions's alma mater, the University of Alabama School of Law, to sign the petition.
In an op-ed in USA Today, Gross wrote that Sessions's policies would not promote public safety or protect civil rights, especially the civil rights of immigrants. "With Sessions in charge, immigrants would understandably be fearful of law enforcement," Gross declared, adding that "the threat of deportation would ensure that they would not seek the protection of our laws when they are the victims of crimes, unfair labor practices or domestic violence. [Sessions's] immigration enforcement policies would create a new class of people in our nation, one that is beyond the reach of our criminal and civil courts."
Gross further enumerated as cause for concern Sessions's continued belief (without evidence) in widespread voter fraud, which might prompt him to ignore states enacting laws to undercut the National Voting Rights Act; his possible unwillingness to hold law enforcement agencies accountable for engaging in discriminatory practices in violation of the Constitution, as Sessions has stated that "those who protect and serve are unfairly maligned for the actions of an unrepresentative few"; his vote in opposition to the Violence Against Women Act, whose office he would have to oversee as U.S. Attorney General; and his vehement disapproval of the Supreme Court decision guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry, which suggests he might not enforce laws that proscribe sexual-orientation discrimination. The list of regressive views Sessions holds goes on and on.
Justice. The word appears in our Pledge of Allegiance. "One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." And yet in 2017 we are poised to upend this pledge and contravene its promise, even as we ask our nation's schoolchildren to utter it daily. To even suggest Jeff Sessions to head the Department of Justice indicates that Donald Trump doesn't under the meaning of the word or the responsibilities of the office. Or, in the alternative, within Trump's understanding of "justice for all," there are groups unworthy of it.
Trump's sole African-American Cabinet pick to date: Ben Carson for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. But do not be fooled by the optics — Carson is not an embodiment of Martin Luther King's dream. In his confirmation hearing, he claimed to believe in "equal rights" but not "extra rights" with respect to the LGBT community. "Extra rights"? Carson has used this verbiage before. Speaking about transgender people being allowed to use a bathroom corresponding with their gender identity, he posited, "When we start trying to impose the extra rights based on a few people who perhaps are abnormal, where does that lead?" If King had a dream, this is the nightmare.
I used to admire Ben Carson, immensely. I went to high school in Baltimore, a city with a large African-American population, where Carson was then the director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, one of America's premier hospitals. I was awed by Carson's life story, which he traces in his autobiography Gifted Hands — from his days as a young, impoverished kid in Detroit Public Schools, who beat the odds to attend Yale University (my own alma mater) and the University of Michigan Medical School, to his rise to international renown after separating twins conjoined at the head. Carson was a legend.
But, let's face it, Ben Carson has zero government experience and his expertise is better suited for Secretary of Health and Human Services. And he appears to be deeply biased against the LGBT community, having argued in 2013 that same-sex marriage would lead to pedophilia and bestiality. Moreover, Carson, like Trump, appears to have no understanding of history — a history he indubitably lived through as an African-American man of his age. Or perhaps he has actively worked to distance himself from said history. How dangerous for us all!
Last week, during his confirmation hearing, Carson told an anecdote that belied his preference for mythologization. He spoke of his mother taking him as a child to the mansions she cleaned, and asking him if he would rather live there or in their modest home in southwest Detroit. "You know the person who has the most to do with determining where you live?" she allegedly told her son. "It’s you. It’s not somebody else; it’s not the environment." While the message Carson's mother wished to convey is inspiring — that is, if Carson didn't just invent this story, post hoc — her words were not rooted in reality. To tell such an anecdote on Capitol Hill suggests that Carson might think minorities who live in public housing are a bunch of underachievers who need to work harder.
From the end of slavery well into the 20th century, African-Americans have endured systematic housing discrimination in this country. Indeed, as recently as 2008, blacks and Latinos faced tremendous housing insecurity as they were disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis due to subprime mortgages foisted upon them. Perhaps Carson is unaware of this unfortunate history, or perhaps he is in denial because its persistence does not track with his own success narrative. In a 2015 piece for the Washington Times, Carson went on record to condemn a HUD rule intended to desegregate neighborhoods, describing it as a "government-engineered attempt to legislate racial equality." Dare we ask what Carson might suggest in its place? As Terrell Jermaine Starr wrote in The New York Times, "Mr. Carson is a perfect pick for a president-elect who has been sued for housing discrimination himself. He can serve as the black face of 'pull yourself up by your bootstraps,' while absolving white conservatives of the need to acknowledge that black people were rarely allowed to pull themselves up in the first place."
Donald Trump has a serious race problem. This much we know. It's why he on-boarded The Celebrity Apprentice star Omarosa Manigault on the campaign trail as his director of African-American Outreach. But even Omarosa couldn't stop Trump from putting his foot in his mouth. Or maybe she wasn't supposed to, but rather merely stand by his side for the sake of the photo op. Omarosa told PBS in a Frontline special during the campaign, "Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump... It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe." Revenge on whom? How stunning to hear such words from a black woman, who is using her visibility to encourage minorities to vote against their own best interests, thereby promoting her own political and financial advancement.
Trump doesn't see things the way I do, naturally. "Our government has totally failed our African American friends, our Hispanic friends and the people of our country. Period," Trump said back in August 2016 at a rally in Akron, Ohio. "Poverty. Rejection. Horrible education. No housing, no homes, no ownership. Crime at levels that nobody has seen. You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it's safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats... [T]o the African Americans, who I employ so many, so many people, to the Hispanics, tremendous people: What the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I'll straighten it out. I'll straighten it out. What do you have to lose?"
If Trump's offensive noblesse oblige "what the hell have you got to lose" stump speech while campaigning for black and Hispanic votes was supposed to be outreach, then Omarosa is going to be perilous, indeed, to minorities in her new job as assistant to the president. It was probably Omarosa's idea for Trump to skip out on today's scheduled visit to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in honor of Martin Luther King's birthday. What else would we expect from Omarosa, a cutthroat, two-faced reality television star? She'll throw us all under the bus in her self-serving grab for power. But then she learned it all from the man who hired her.
Employing Ben Carson or Omarosa does not demonstrate Donald Trump's commitment to racial minorities, King's legacy, or civil rights and equal justice for all Americans. Carson and Omarosa are cosmetic — shiny black distractions. Trump's technique is called legerdemain: while he pushes Carson and Omarosa forward in one hand, his other hand is slipping Jeff Sessions in place to undo civil rights under the imprimatur of the Justice Department. How rich!
Nearly 50 years after his assassination, Dr. King deserves better. Mildred and Richard Loving deserve better on the 50th anniversary of their landmark Supreme Court decision. Representative John Lewis deserves better. Katherine Johnson deserves better. Our nation's children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and believing it to be true deserve better. We all do.
RAN AUBREY FRAZIER is a talent manager at Authentic Talent & Literary Management. Follow him on Twitter @tanranman.