Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. day, the holiday devoted to one of our nation’s premier 20th century civil rights leaders.
RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the United States needs to follow King’s example, or lose respect around the world.
The saddest thing we must face on this sacred day is an American president who seems to see immigration through the prism of race.
When meeting last week with leaders from both parties on major immigration legislation, President Donald Trump used words that we are not going to repeat in referring to immigrants from such countries as Haiti and African nations.
The president said he would prefer immigration from Norway.
Trump issued a partial denial of his vile language, but did not contest the thrust of his comments.
Immigration in America, a white settler country built on black slavery and ethnic cleansing, has always been fraught with religious and racial attitudes. Immigration has never been easy, even in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, two states that have long been cauldrons for assimilating newcomers from foreign countries.
There was almost no such person as an illegal immigrant until the 1920s, when the white, Protestant majority, alarmed at a wave of immigrants from southern Europe, persuaded Congress to slam shut the door on immigrants from southern European nations, including Italy, Greece and Portugal.
Martin Luther King Jr., called out white America for many wrongs. One of his strongest messages was to contrast the actions of whites and the governments they controlled to the founding principles of our nation and its Judeo-Christian heritage. King’s overriding strategy was to invoke the stirring cadences of the Bible and such documents as the Declaration of Independence to bolster his arguments for equal rights.
The words “all men are created equal” didn’t play very well when juxtaposed with black citizens being hosed with water cannons and beaten by police because they wanted the right to vote. King was successful, in part, because he was able to prick the conscience of a white majority that knew in their hearts that he was right.
Another striking aspect of the 1960s Civil Rights Movements was the extent to which King’s movement tracked the Cold War consensus that the United States was showing to the world. As Secretary of State Dean Acheson acknowledged in the late 1940s, “the existence of discrimination against minority groups in this country has an adverse effect upon our relations with countries.”
U.S. presidents from Harry Truman, who desegregated the armed forces, to Lyndon Johnson, who signed into law the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, advocated for civil rights. Their hope was that other nations, particularly in the Third World, would see the United States as a moral nation that practiced what it preached.
The Cold War was one of words and systems. Presidents, particularly John F. Kennedy, were sensitive to Soviet Union leaders pointing out that Americans were hypocritical for waving the banner of liberty yet treating blacks as second-class citizens.
Now, Trump’s attitudes threaten to revive the `Ugly American’ stereotype that for too long defined a foreign policy that propped up dictators around the world and relied on militarism rather than good deeds.
Foreign nations were swift in denouncing Trump. “The African Union Commission is frankly alarmed at statements by the president of the United States,” said a spokeswoman for the African Union. She added, “considering the historical reality of how many Africans arrived in the U.S. during the Atlantic slave trade, this flies in the face of all accepted behavior and practice.”
This episode is yet another sorry reminder of how a president’s offhand comments or his shoot-from-the-tweet administration cast a pall on America’s status around the world. Military power is not the only measure of international authority. A nation that aspires to international respect requires moral leadership.
No matter what the president says, the immigration issue isn’t going away. It’s long past time for Republicans and Democrats to forge a deal that provides a path to citizenship for the many millions in this country illegally.
The first principle of which ought to come from King: a plan that judges people on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics”
Blog at RIPR.org