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Civil rights leaders: MLK died fighting racism, classism that is Trump hallmark

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illnois. Brian Jackson / SunTimes file photo

As the nation this year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leaders warn the overt racism marking the Trump era has turned America’s clock back.

From growing threats to laws such as the Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act King fought for, to racist comments about nations of people of color attributed to President Donald Trump on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Trump has invigorated a new civil rights movement.

“On the weekend where we should be honoring the spirit and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., who fought for racial equality, we have a president intent on dividing this country,” U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., said in a statement.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. | AP file photo

Rush was active in the 60s movement, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1968 and later co-founding the Illinois Black Panther Party.

“This is the same person who started his career being sued twice by the Department of Justice for racial discrimination because he would not rent apartments to African-Americans. This is the same person who began his presidential campaign calling Mexican immigrants rapists, murderers and criminals.

“The president of the United States is racist,” Rush said.

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To combat what they say are eroding hard-fought gains under this administration, civil rights, religious and labor groups have launched national collaborations similar to those propelling the movement King led. The revered civil rights leader was assassinated on April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, after going there to support the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike.

One present-day collaboration, the IAM2018 campaign, which ramped up this weekend, seeks to connect the legacy of those strikers and King to issues plaguing poor communities, which was the focus of King’s 1968 “Poor People’s Campaign.”

Aided by the Rev. James Robinson, Coretta King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., center, and John Lewis of the Voter Education project, a crowd estimate by police at 5,000, march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Alabama. | Sun-Times file photo

The 18-month initiative has been training and mobilizing youth activists and community organizers nationwide around economic justice issues. It’s led by the Church of God in Christ, whose Mason Temple was the site of King’s prophetic “Mountaintop” speech days before his death; and by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the sanitation workers union.

“We’ve come such a distance and we’ve made unbelievable progress,” U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who helped launch the initiative, told the Sun-Times. “If it hadn’t been for Dr. King and Rosa Parks and others in the movement, I don’t know what would have happened. He taught us how to stand up, how to speak up and not be afraid.

“But 50 years later, there is an attempt to destroy some of the gains we’ve made. I almost died on that bridge in Selma for the right to vote, and now there are forces that want to take us back to another time and another period,” said Lewis, one of the 13 original Freedom Riders of 1960, and national chairman of SNCC from 1963-66.

“This man we have in the White House is not leading us. He is coming very close to destroying the hopes, the dreams and the aspirations of a people. But we will resist with everything we have,” said Lewis, an organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and leader in the 1965 Selma march known as “Bloody Sunday.”

“We may get hurt, we may get thrown in jail again, maybe left bloody, but we will not go back,” he said.

Another initiative — being launched this month by a diverse coalition including Chicago’s Rainbow PUSH, the National Bar Association, National Council of Negro Women and Arab American Institute — focuses on voter registration and rooting out voter suppression efforts.

The dignity of the march on behalf of striking Memphis sanitation workers March 28, 1968, soon gave way to disorder; hope turned to horror. Bernard Lee cleared the way for Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy. | Sun-Times file photo

Civil rights leaders charge suppression was the real motive behind Trump’s disbanded Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Their collaboration, called the National Commission for Voter Justice, or People’s Commission, will kick off a two-year study of suppressive measures Jan. 17 on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

“So while there is the Trump factor, there’s also resistance,” Rainbow PUSH founder Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Sun-Times. Jackson and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had flanked King on the Lorraine Hotel balcony moments before his assassination.

“I think King would be sad that America has made such a radical turn to the right, under Trump,” he said, pointing to comments the president reportedly made about Haiti and Africa. “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump has denied making the racially charged remark.

“But [King] would be inspired,” Jackson said. “Look at what happened at the polls in Virginia, in Alabama, when we voted our numbers. We beat the Confederate candidate. We have a weapon we didn’t have 50 years ago at the ballot box. We have the cause. And the coalition is getting larger.”