By Hazel Trice Edney
In his victory speech the morning after the Nov. 8 election, President-Elect Donald Trump called for America to come together and promised to be the president of all Americas – even those who did not support him.
Despite his vitriolic, pit bull style of campaigning that won the hearts of the Ku Klux Klan, he continued his new tone and demeanor in his first Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama. Since the meeting, he has even conceded to keep some parts of the Affordable Health Care Act, known as Obama Care, and said he would not seek prosecution of his Democratic campaign rival Hillary Clinton because “I don’t want to hurt those people.” Even in his Thanksgiving message, he made a special mention of the “inner cities” to double down on his campaign promise to improve Black neighborhoods. Since the election, his staff has said he has spoken several times with President Obama, seeking a smooth transition.
It all sounds like a new and improved Donald Trump – far from the chants of “Lock her up!” But the leaders of the nation’s top seven civil rights organizations are not buying this softened, new and improved version of Trump. They say it will not be his tone, but his actions that will determine what they will now do to guard against and protect any roll backs on civil rights gains.
Shocked and stunned by the results of the election and feel that the election puts at risk hard-fought gains in the area of civil rights and economic opportunity. We have a responsibility that we will not acquit ourselves of to vigorously oppose any policies, any actions, any appointments, any steps which are inconsistent with our very important agenda and which would serve to turn back the clock on hard-fought civil rights gains.
Their first sign that danger is nigh is Trump’s hiring of Stephen K. “Steve” Bannon, a founder of Breitbart news, the voice of the so-called “alt-right” – White supremacists and racists across the nation. Their second sign was Trump’s nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for U. S. attorney general. Sessions once said the Ku Klux Klan was alright with him until he learned that they smoked pot and was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 for a “slew of racist comments, including calling the work of the NAACP and ACLU ‘Un-American’,” according to the NAACP.
“Whether one whispers or whether one shouts, if the message is the same what does it matter?” National Action Network President Rev. Al Sharpton said of Trump in response to a question during a phone conference between journalists and civil rights leaders. “I think we are mistaking his change in tone with change in content. He has said very loudly that he wants stop and frisk and that he supports the state laws that oppress voters” as well as anti-immigration stances.
Because of these issues – among other indicators that there is trouble ahead – Sharpton has announced a mass march during the Martin Luther King Holiday weekend in January – less than a week before the Trump inauguration, Jan. 20.
“In fact, last night the National Action Network hosted a conference call with 413 ministers planning a January 14 march, kicking off King week six days before the inauguration, kicking off King week around the very theme that we will not be moved,” Sharpton said. “Because some things you can’t vote out with an election. And some things will not change because a president has changed.”
Sharpton was backed on the phone line by six other organizational heads that represents the nation’s largest civil rights organizations: Marc Morial of the National Urban League; Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation; Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; Cornell William Brooks of the NAACP; Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and Kristin Clark of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
“We are not being alarmists, we are being realists about the record of the incoming president-elect and what he has said. If people are saying we’re not giving him a chance, we are willing to give him a chance. The problem is we are listening to what he has said,” Sharpton said.
Morial said the group will maintain its posture of readiness to deal with issues and adverse appointments as they come from Trump.
“We are unified today and prepared to move forward. And we do this today in the spirit of understanding that this close election certainly yielded a new president-elect,” Morial said, but that president-elect did not win a majority of the popular vote nor did he win a mandate to act against civil rights.
Brooks said the NAACP is ready to employ every legal strategy necessary to fight against attacks.
He noted how racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia and misogyny became routine during the campaign. “When we look at the positions Mr. Trump took as a candidate, there is nothing to suggest that he is not fully committed to those positions as president. And his appointments indicate that he is doubling down on his campaign promises.”
Morial declined to say whether the civil rights groups – which met several times with President Obama – would seek a meeting with President Trump, once he is in office. But outside of meeting face to face, Brooks listed grass roots mobilization, legislative advocacy as well as legal redress as among the strategies that could be used to fight against roll backs of civil rights. “And I think we can certainly expect the nation’s leading civil rights organizations to move in a concerted, coordinated and united fashion.”
Ifill said much of their action will be contingent upon the actions of Trump. “The ball is in Mr. Trump’s court and our job is to develop our strategy and to deal with what is likely to come to ensure that we are not only protecting civil rights but finding ways, even in this hostile climate, to advance civil rights,” she said.
Henderson and Clark made note of attacks that are already in full force against voting rights.
Clark said voter suppression efforts “put in place in the three years preceding the 2016 presidential election” by the Shelby County vs. Holder case, “opened up the flood gates.” The results of Shelby v. Holder was the gutting of the Pre-clearance Clause of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required certain states and territories to get approval from the Justice Department before making any changes in voting policies.
During the Nov. 8 election Clark noted that African-American, Latino and others were blocked from voting at certain polls. She described depressed voter turnout and voter suppression in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida, and North Carolina. “Voter suppression had an impact on election day,” she said.
Henderson pointed out that states covered by Section 5 “have closed at least 868 polling places” since the Shelby decision in 2013, causing long lines to ensue.
In addition to public stances against roll backs, Campbell stressed the importance for the groups to also have conversations with the general public about how and why certain coalitions supporting Trump, including 52 percent of White women.
“Conversations must be had about what happened and about the issues that face us moving forward,” Campbell said. “This generation is saying something went wrong and resistance is very much a part of the strategy.”
Sharpton concluded, “In terms of his movement to the right and the flavor of White nationalism, we may have lost an election, but we have not lost our minds nor have we lost our ability to mobilize…We are going to keep street heat up.”