Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
George Hudson stands on on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta Monday.

In city of Martin Luther King and John Lewis, a close eye on Trump

When Patrik Jonsson went out to talk to black Americans about President Trump, he didn’t find minds closed against the new president, as the media narrative would suggest. Many of the people he talked to were willing to wait and see what – and how – he does. But they were also adamant about one thing: They won't see racial equality rolled back on their watch. – Mark Sappenfield, National news editor

George Hudson spent his entire life here on Auburn Avenue, a dozen steps from the house where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. grew up, and a block from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. King proclaimed what became a globally transformative message of human freedom.

To many Americans, the civil rights movement is the stuff of black-and-white pictures in history books. But to Mr. Hudson and thousands of other Atlantans, it is part of living history in a city still populated by the civic actors who downplayed hate and strove for higher human principles.

For those reasons, says Hudson, “this is a city that inspired change, but it’s also a city that would go to war to make sure those gains aren’t reversed.”

For many black Americans, the questions of what happen to those gains under the Trump administration is an open question. Not all are predisposed to distrust President Trump right from the start. His promises to fight crime in inner cities and to promote charter schools hold an appeal for some.

But more are wary. Mr. Trump’s Twitter attack on civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, whose district is in the heart of Atlanta, seemed ominous. Trump called the district – which is 58 percent black and stretches from well-heeled Buckhead to blue-collar East Point – “horrible” and “crime-infested,” while suggesting Representative Lewis, repeatedly beaten as an original Freedom Rider, was “all talk … no action.”

But the reaction is more resolve than panic. Indeed, the Twitter spat provided a moment of clarity for many here, including Hudson. It came as a reminder of how profound the gains have been, and how progress on racial rights must be an eternal flame – as the one visible just over Hudson’s shoulder in front of King’s tomb – not just a bright spark.

“There’s been an assumption among many people who grew up in the last few decades that there’s a natural impulse toward greater freedom, more rights, and the broadening of democracy,” says Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton University and author of “White Flight.” “Now we’re seeing a growing awareness of just how fragile [these improvements] are … and that they are not going to stand on their own.”

The view from John Lewis's district

Concerns about the Trump administration stem from its emphasis on policing above reform, proposals to cut federal funding for vital programs, and Trump’s disparaging comments about black neighborhoods, among other things.

For example, the new White House website vows to “not make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter” – a direct reference to unrest following a series of controversial police killings of unarmed black men – but says nothing about equitable policing in minority neighborhoods, a major concern of many black Americans.

Early versions of Trump’s proposed budget would eliminate the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and cut back the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, according to The Hill.

“We are deeply concerned that this Justice Department is preparing to abandon its commitment to enforcement of our nation’s civil rights laws,” Kristen Clarke, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a teleconference Tuesday.

High school football coach Lester Mickens, who grew up and still lives in Lewis’s congressional district, watches the news at dinner time every night and concludes that, “as a black community, we’re in a quagmire right now on this Trump thing.”

“Us black people are used to this struggle, so, in some ways, Trump does little to us,” he says. At the same time, “good people are not going to stand by and let him and his regime do bad things. One of Obama’s lasting accomplishments … was that he brought us together morally as a country. And that’s why there’ll be marches, protests, and more situations where we will form coalitions more fiercely.”

Trump’s tweeted aspersions against the Fifth Congressional District here were in some ways easy to laugh off. One counter-tweet read, “Atlanta is a nightmare: I just had to wait 45 minutes to get seated for brunch.”

But some people point to North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays” as an example of the kinds of “coalitions” that could sprout nationwide. When the state legislature shifted right – at one point passing new voting rules that a federal court said “almost surgically” disenfranchised black North Carolinians – the movement responded with hundreds of peaceful protests and nonviolent arrests. It has been credited with helping to lead an electoral charge that ousted Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.

“Yes, you can win rights, but protecting those rights is as important as winning them,” says Noliwe Rooks, an American studies professor at Cornell University and a graduate of Atlanta’s historic Spelman College. African-American voters in North Carolina found out that “the law is a piece of paper. It can be torn up just as easily.”

Trump's appeal, Atlanta's resolve

That’s not to say Trump holds no appeal. Coach Mickens agrees that Trump’s focus on improving urban economies could help break cycles of despair and violence in poor black communities. Others say that the nomination of charter-school proponent Betsy DeVos to become Education secretary dovetails into large-scale African-American support for charter schools, given the struggles of many inner city public schools.

But the determination to hold to victories won is strong here.

To lawyer Korey Albury, the best defense for Atlanta is its very existence as a black-led global trade and entertainment hub.

“The fact is that this is a great city that is run very well by African-Americans,” says Ms. Albury. “And no matter what anyone says, we’re going to keep doing a good job.”

Indeed, Atlantans see themselves as holding a vital place in the national discussion on civil rights and the promise of black America.  

“Atlanta, the jewel of black America, is a microcosm … because it is a perfect example of what can be done when we have equality of access, and create opportunities and allow people of all races, creeds, and colors to participate – where you open up your society,” says Charles Coleman Jr., a former city attorney in Brooklyn who now prosecutes civil rights cases.

Trump will get a wait-and-see grace period, says John Jones, who owns Leslie’s Barber Shop on Edgewood Avenue. But it could be short, he says.

Setting his eyes on the Atlanta skyline, he shakes his head: “There’s no way anyone’s going to strip away what we here in Atlanta have fought for – no way.”

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