President Donald Trump’s visit to Mississippi for the opening of their new Civil Rights Museum was one of many controversies that engulfed his administration last week. Many civil rights activists, including most notably Congressman John Lewis, felt Trump’s presence at the museum was a direct challenge to everything the Civil Rights Movement stood for. We should understand Trump’s visit and the reaction to it, however, as not just a response to Trump’s own policies and history. His visit is part of the continuing struggle to enshrine the Civil Rights Movement—and more broadly, the African American experience—within American civil religion.
I’d argue this debate over the memory of the Civil Rights Movement and its relationship to American presidents began with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. Kennedy’s June 1963 speech on civil rights, and Johnson’s exhortation that “we shall overcome” in his 1965 address in support of voting rights gave the Civil Rights Movement the kind of support from the federal government it had never had before. At the same time, the movement and African Americans more broadly were moved into the center of American civil religion. This idea of a national set of beliefs and commonly held memories of the American past sidelined African Americans. Think of the dangerous national reconciliation around the Civil War that followed the Reconstruction period. There, ideas of black inferiority festered and, eventually, thrive for the sake of (white) American reconciliation across the Mason-Dixon line.
Since the 1960s, however, the enshrinement of African Americans within civil religion and the memorialization of the Civil Rights Movement have gone hand in hand. This isn’t to suggest there were never attempts by the government to reach out to African Americans during moments of crisis—recall World War II as an example. But every president has had to confront some form of memorializing Civil Rights Movement history in public. Ronald Reagan’s original opposition to making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday into a national holiday is an example of how this can, at times, create awkward political moments for the president of the United States.
George W. Bush faced a similar problem at the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King. Occurring as it did only months after the tepid response to Hurricane Katrina, and at the height of the insurgency in Iraq, Coretta Scott King’s funeral was occasion for both former President Jimmy Carter and civil rights activist Reverend Joseph Lowery to heavily criticize Bush. As Lowery said, “We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew, and we knew, that there are weapons of misdirection right down here.”
Trump’s statements and actions have, to say the least, given historians headaches. It’s his relationship with African American history that has proven to be particularly fraught at times. Back in February he made remarks commemorating Black History Month, which quickly turned into commentary about “fake news” involving the rumored removal of the Martin Luther King, Jr. bust from the Oval Office.
Much of this comes as a surprise because it is in stark contrast to Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama—who came to national prominence partially because of his thoughtful ruminations on African American history. I have written elsewhere about Barack Obama’s use of African American history in the public sphere, so I shall not repeat myself here. But it is worth thinking about the critical back-and-forth between Republican presidents and civil rights leaders over how we commemorate African Americans. The reaction to Donald Trump’s visit is, in so many ways, a new and sobering reflection of where we are as a nation when it comes to race relations and history. But it also fits a larger pattern of civil rights activists and intellectuals critiquing how the highest office in the land treats a sacred past.