Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) branded Trump’s election a “giant step back” for all the things Martin Luther King Jr. believed in.
Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) dubbed Trump “a reality TV star trying to drag us into an episode.”
But at the National Action Network’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration in Harlem, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries’ (D-N.Y.) anti-Trump riff left the biggest mark.
“These are challenging times in the United States of America. We have a hater in the White House: the birther in chief, the grand wizard of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Jeffries said, referencing the head position of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan. The remark drew guffaws and cheers from the hundreds of people in attendance.
“One of the things that we’ve learned is that while Jim Crow might be dead, he’s still got some nieces and nephews who are alive and well,” Jeffries added.
The comments, which immediately went viral on social media, reflected the degree to which Democrats were using the national holiday commemorating the birth of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to paint Trump and Republicans as enemies of King’s vision.
Of course, Trump has given Democrats ample ammunition ― not merely in his long record of racist comments and hard-line immigration policies, but also in his response to MLK Day this year.
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence visited the King monument in Washington on Monday following criticism that the White House had not planned any official events to mark the holiday.
Sharpton lit into Trump over the absence of events at an MLK Day event in Washington on Monday morning and again in Harlem that afternoon, calling the last-minute gesture a “drive-by,” since Trump was driven there in a hastily planned visit.
Sharpton also noted the irony that MLK Day comes during the longest-ever partial shutdown of the federal government. King was assassinated while advocating for striking Memphis, Tennessee, sanitation workers ― public employees just like the 800,000 federal workers who have missed at least one paycheck so far due to the shutdown.
“There could be nothing more offensive to the legacy of Martin Luther King” than to keep those workers from getting paid on time, Sharpton said.
The Trump administration seemed to invite these kinds of comparisons themselves. Speaking on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Pence argued that King’s leadership should inspire a resolution to the impasse over border wall funding that has kept the government shutdown going.
“One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was, ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,’” he said. “You think of how he changed America; he inspired us to change through the legislative process.”
In recent years, progressive politicians and activists have sought to restore King’s legacy to its radical roots, which they argue has been sanitized to exclude the controversial beliefs he espoused toward the end of his life. King elicited ire from many of his onetime establishment allies for speaking out so vocally against the Vietnam War and for the kinds of social democratic policies he believed were necessary to eradicate poverty.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) was one of the speakers at the National Action Network celebration to highlight King’s less well-known quest for economic equality.
“It’s not the whole Dr. King that a lot of times is remembered,” de Blasio said. “Dr. King spoke about a struggle for justice, and not just racial justice, as I said — he believed you could not have racial justice without economic justice.”
De Blasio used the occasion to tout the city’s plans to guarantee health care to all residents. He also announced that in the interest of trying to “live in Dr. King’s image in today’s world,” the city planned to mandate two weeks of annual paid time off for every New York City worker.
“Here in this city, we’re going to lead the way. We’re going to show what can be done,” de Blasio declared. “We’re going to show that working people will get the wages they deserve, the benefits they deserve, the life they deserve.”