Nation

On King holiday, Trump meets with civil rights leader’s son

President-elect Donald Trump shook hands with Martin Luther King III after Monday’s meeting at Trump Tower.
Dominick Reuter/AFP/Getty Images
President-elect Donald Trump shook hands with Martin Luther King III after Monday’s meeting at Trump Tower.

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump met Monday with the eldest son of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the holiday devoted to the civil rights icon, reaching out to African-Americans who have been alarmed by his rhetoric and policy positions.

The hastily arranged session came as tensions escalated between the incoming president and a number of prominent black elected officials after Trump feuded publicly with Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who fought for civil rights alongside King.

It also highlighted the challenges Trump faces as a president deeply distrusted by minorities.

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Many have been offended by his false allegations that President Obama was born outside the United States, appalled that his candidacy drew backing from white supremacist organizations, and dismayed at policy proposals they consider antithetical to their interests.

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Trump, who takes office Friday, did not address those issues Monday.

He ignored questions shouted by reporters in the lobby of Trump Tower after emerging with Martin Luther King III from a meeting that lasted nearly an hour. But he made sure that news cameras captured him shaking hands with the civil rights leader, a visual manifestation of his stated aspiration to unite a divided nation.

King said the session, which touched on voting rights, had been “constructive” and described Trump as eager to present himself as inclusive. “He said that he is going to represent Americans — he’s said that over and over again,” King told reporters. “We will continue to evaluate that.”

While praising Lewis, King sought to defuse the furor surrounding Trump’s remarks about the representative, saying, “In the heat of emotion, a lot of things get said on both sides.”

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But other black leaders said Trump’s relationship with the black community — tense, bordering on toxic, after a strident campaign that instilled fear, and a transition that has done little to allay their concerns — would not improve unless the president-elect altered both his tone and his policy positions.

“There’s a lot of anxiety, there’s a lot of distrust, there are people who have expressed to me that they’re scared of what his policies might entail,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. “There’s a lot of work for him to do if he’s really sincere about building a working relationship on some of the issues we’re concerned about.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton said nothing underscored Trump’s challenge more vividly than his outburst in a pair of Twitter postings on Saturday that called Lewis, who was brutally beaten in the “Bloody Sunday” march in 1965 in Selma, Ala., “all talk.”

Trump also said that instead of “falsely complaining” about the election results, Lewis should focus on fixing his “falling apart” and “crime infested” Georgia district.

Lewis actually represents a district that includes part of the wealthy enclave of Buckhead; the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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Trump’s remarks were apparently a reaction to an interview on Friday in which Lewis said he would not attend the inauguration, and did not see Trump as a legitimate president because of questions on whether Russian hacking had affected the American election.

“If you can disrespect John Lewis on Martin Luther King Day, then what are you saying about the rest of us?” Sharpton said, adding that no single meeting Trump could hold would alleviate the concerns felt in the African-American community.

“He still thinks that we’re playing television red carpet here, rather than dealing with the presidency of the United States, with something of real substance,’’ Sharpton said. “This is not a photo-op.”

Hours before King met with Trump, his sister Bernice King encouraged 2,000 people at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, her father’s church, to work for his vision of love and justice ‘‘no matter who is in the White House.’’

Bernice King avoided a detailed critique of Trump, but said the nation has a choice between ‘‘chaos and community,’’ a dichotomy her father preached about. ‘‘At the end of the day, the Donald Trumps come and go,’’ she said, later adding, ‘‘We still have to find a way to create . . . the beloved community.’’

Senator Bernie Sanders brought the Ebenezer assembly to its feet with his reminder that King was not just an advocate for racial equality, but a radical proponent for economic justice — a mission that put him at odds with the political establishment.

‘‘If you think governors and senators and mayors were standing up and saying what a great man Dr. King was, read history, because you are sorely mistaken,’’ roared Sanders, who invoked the same themes from his failed presidential campaign.

Sanders, who struggled to attract black voters in his Democratic primary fight with Hillary Clinton, recalled King’s opposing the Vietnam War as exploiting the poor. He also noted King was assassinated in Memphis, where he'd gone to rally striking sanitation workers, white and black.

The current Ebenezer pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, did not call Trump by name, but praised his predecessor. ‘‘Thank you, Barack Obama,’’ he said. ‘‘I'm sad to see you go.’’

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama honored King’s memory by painting a mural at a family shelter in Washington.

The Obamas joined residents of the Jobs Have Priority Naylor Road Family Shelter to paint a display of the slain civil rights activist on a wall in the community room. The mural features a large rendering of King’s face surrounded by butterflies, under the words ‘‘Wall of Hope.’’

Obama was working on a butterfly and told reporters he was just trying to get it right.

The shelter is also where the Obamas donated the swing set they installed on the White House South Lawn in 2009 for their daughters when Malia and Sasha were younger.