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A day to reflect

US marks King holiday amid fears of deep racial divisions

Rabbi Fred Reeves speaks during the Friday Shabbat Service at KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago. As the nation marks the day set aside to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., an African American who strove against hate and preached racial and social justice, some worry the nation is becoming more divided. The Associated Press

DETROIT — To commemorate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nicholas Thomas and more than 100 other volunteers will board up vacant houses, install school safety signs and make other improvements to a Detroit neighborhood. Their mission is to celebrate King’s legacy by being good neighbors and helping lift up a primarily black school in one of the poorer areas of the city.

As Thomas fans out across the neighborhood with hammer and nails, King’s legacy of peace and racial and social justice will be foremost in his mind. But at the same time, he’s struggling to come to grips with the deep racial divisions roiling the nation under President Donald Trump.

“Dr. King wanted unity. We have Trump separating immigrants … the wall,” said the 19-year-old Thomas, who is black.

As the nation marks the holiday honoring King, the mood surrounding it is overshadowed by deteriorating race relations in an election season that has seen one candidate of color after another quit the 2020 presidential race.

Two black candidates — U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker — and the lone candidate of Hispanic ancestry, former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, have dropped out of the Democratic race for the White House.

Nicholas Thomas (left) and Joe Wright prepare school safety signs on Thursday as part of the AmeriCorps Urban Safety Program at Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Studies. Volunteers will post the signs and also help board up vacant houses today near a Detroit school as part of an annual project commemorating Martin Luther King Day. The Associated Press

“That scares me a lot,” said Deja Hood, 21, of Chicago, a senior at Eastern Michigan University. “Who is going to really back our voicing? You can’t understand a minority if you’ve never been in a minority situation. Even though you can advocate for us all day, you could never understand the issues we go through on a daily basis.”

Booker, Harris and Castro struggled with raising money and with polling. Asian American entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, a Samoan American, and black former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick remain in the race but are not considered top contenders for the Democratic nomination.

The front-runners in the field are all white men and women.

“It’s disappointing, but really not surprising. You look at it and think, ‘damn, now what?'” said Xavier Cheatum, 22, an African American senior at Eastern Michigan who along with Hood is participating in King events on the school’s Ypsilanti campus, west of Detroit.

People have the right to be — and should be — concerned about the state of race relations and the way people of color, in particular, are being treated, said Jill Savitt, president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta.

“What we’re seeing right now, it’s very public and people are showing their hatred openly, but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there,” Savitt said. “There is a coming realization in our country. We have to come to a reckoning about our past and the truth about our history from slavery to the lynching era to Jim Crow. Only with real honesty about our situation can we come to some reconciliation and move on to fulfill King’s hope and dream of a real, peaceful multicultural democracy.”

It doesn’t help when elected leaders don’t — or are slow to — stand against hate and intolerance, she added.

Trump referred last year to a predominantly African American congressional district that includes Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” During a 2018 immigration conversation in the Oval Office, he disparaged Haiti and some African countries with coarse language.

In 2018, there were more than 7,000 single-bias incidents reported by law enforcement, according to FBI hate crime statistics. More than 53% of the offenders were white, while 24% were black. Nearly 60% of the incidents involved race, ethnicity and ancestry.

“Racism has long been a way for people to maintain their power,” Savitt said. “Manipulating people’s fears and anxieties is the way you do that. The Trump administration has certainly fanned the flames.”

Trump is trying to court black voters, knowing that he isn’t likely to win them over en masse but could chip into Democratic advantages if he wins more black support in critical swing states. His campaign has stepped up outreach efforts, including to African Americans and Latinos, marking a departure from 2016 when Trump’s volunteer “National Diversity Coalition” struggled to make an impact.

Only 6% of African American voters went for Trump in the 2016 election, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Trump’s message to black voters in that campaign was: “What have you got to lose?” Supporters now say they have a record to point to, including the low black unemployment rate and investments in historically black colleges and universities.

A Washington Post-Ipsos poll of African Americans in early January found that 90% disapprove of Trump’s job performance and 83% say Trump is racist.

Laying it all in Trump’s lap is unfair, said Carol Swain, an advisory board member to the national Black Voices for Trump.

“With Trump, he has pushed the American nationalist identity that I think tamps down the kind of conflicts we would have,” said Swain, who is black and has taught political science at Vanderbilt and Princeton universities. “He has pushed patriotism over race and that benefits our country.”

Jacob Sklarsky recently read a book about King and the civil rights movement to students in his second-grade Chicago Public Schools class.

“To look at the faces of young black kids who are sometimes hearing about this history for the first time, they are distressed by it,” said Sklarsky, who is white and a member of KAM Isaiah Israel, a Jewish congregation in Chicago.

“They were very relieved at the end because, in a way, it was all worth it,” Sklarsky said. “It gives us some hope, but it’s also very sad that we’re not anywhere near what King dreamed of.”

Notable moments in the career of Martin Luther King Jr.

Each January, Americans honor the life and work of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on Jan. 15, 1929, King would grow up to become one of the most influential people of the 21st century.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a federal holiday celebrated on the third Monday in January each year.

Taking time to learn about some of the many notable moments in King’s career is a way to honor his legacy.

Morehouse College

After attending segregated public schools as a child, King was accepted into Morehouse College at the age of 15. Morehouse College was the alma mater of both King’s father, a pastor, and his maternal grandfather.

While King studied medicine and law at Morehouse, perhaps the first major moment of his career in the ministry occurred while he was a college student. It was at Morehouse where King was mentored by the highly regarded theologian and racial equality advocate Dr. Benjamin Mays. Before his final year at Morehouse, King, then 18, chose to enter the ministry.

Montgomery Bus Boycott

Montgomery, Ala., was a highly segregated city when King and his family relocated to Alabama in the 1950s. Shortly after the King family moved there, an incident involving a 15-year-old black schoolgirl in Montgomery who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man highlighted racial tensions in the city.

Those tensions escalated further nine months later, when 42-year-old Rosa Parks rejected a bus driver’s demand that she give up her bus seat to a white passenger in a section designated for black people. As a result of these incidents, King organized the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted more than a year and ultimately led to the end of racial segregation on all Montgomery public buses.

Southern Christian Leadership Conference

The Montgomery Bus Boycott made King a national figure, and he capitalized on that recognition to help establish the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC was a group of civil rights activists devoted to nonviolent protest.

As SCLC president, a role he held until his death, King traveled the globe promoting nonviolent protest and civil rights.

March on Washington

King played an integral role in the organization and execution of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963. Estimates suggest as many as 300,000 people attended the march, which is considered a watershed moment for the civil rights movement that shone a light on the injustices faced by African Americans across the country.

The march culminated with King delivering his most famous address, which is often referred to as his “I Have a Dream speech.” King delivered the speech while standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shared his view of a future for the United States in which all people would have equal rights and opportunities.