Perhaps, in U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ prepared speech to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Miami, there was a direct response to President-elect Donald Trump over the political feud between the two men during the past three days in TV interviews and on Twitter.
But when Lewis took the microphone Monday, he put his script aside.
“I prepared a speech, but I’m not going to use it,” he told hundreds of people assembled at Jungle Island’s treetop ballroom. “I’ve been deeply inspired by being here.”
And so Lewis launched into a rousing, 32-minute oration — which at times felt like a church-pulpit sermon — about his remarkable life of civil-rights activism, the heroes that inspired him and the faith that a younger generation will succeed them.
He didn’t mention the end of the first black presidency, or the start of new presidency headed by an executive who paints many African Americans as residents of inner-city “hell.” But it was impossible to ignore the political context of Lewis’ remarks.
“Never, ever hate,” Lewis implored the young men of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, the mentoring and scholarship program that hosted the breakfast. “The way of love is a better way. The way of peace is a better way.”
Perhaps it amounted to a response to Trump, after all.
The 76-year-old Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia, was making his first public comments since Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to condemn Lewis for asserting that Trump is not a “legitimate president.”
“I think the Russians participated in helping this man get elected,” Lewis said in a pre-taped “Meet the Press” interview Friday. “And they helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.”
Lewis, who campaigned with Clinton in Fort Lauderdale a week before the election, also told “Meet the Press” he would skip a presidential inauguration for the first time in 30 years. As it turns out, he also skipped the 2001 inauguration of President George W. Bush after also questioning his legitimacy following the election recount.
The dispute escalated early Saturday morning, when Trump tweeted that Lewis “should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”
Lewis, who represents some of Atlanta’s wealthiest neighborhoods, is a civil-rights icon who helped lead the landmark 1965 voting-rights Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery — side-by-side with the late Rev. King, whose birthday was observed Monday. Lewis was among the many demonstrators beaten by state troopers and jailed in what became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Later Saturday, Trump tweeted: “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S. I can use all the help I can get!”
Trump’s team defended the president-elect as Lewis remained silent.
“For someone of John Lewis’ stature to lend credibility to the baseless assertions of those who question the legitimacy of this election is deeply disappointing,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Monday on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends.” “I hope he reconsiders it.”
“Congressman Lewis started this,” incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told NBC’s “The Today Show” on Monday. “You have this icon of voting and civil rights claiming that an election was illegitimate when there’s zero evidence of that. Everybody has confirmed that the election was duly held.”
On Monday, Trump met in New York with Martin Luther King III, who was later asked by reporters about the Lewis dispute.
“Things get said on both sides in the heat of emotion,” King said. “And at some point in this nation, we’ve got to move forward.”
In the meantime, Lewis received a hero’s welcome in Miami, a city that has a way of finding itself in the middle of national controversies. One after another, speakers at the MLK breakfast praised him — and, at times, seemed to allude to Trump.
“There are individuals amongst us who made history. They in fact wrote it,” said Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “History enabled by passion and compassion — that real history that cannot be undermined or unwritten or rewritten by simple words of today.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, talked about leaders “willing to have your head cracked open” and be imprisoned to fight for justice.
“We throw the word ‘courage’ around these days very lightly,” he said. “You are sitting in the presence of a true American hero.”
Rubio did tell reporters he disagrees with Lewis’ remarks on Trump.
“I don’t agree with him that President-elect Trump is illegitimate. I also don’t agree with his decision not to attend the inaugural, though it certainly is his right. It’s not about President-elect Trump — it’s a peaceful transfer of power,” Rubio said.
Regarding Trump’s response, however, Rubio added: “I also would have hoped that the president-elect would have responded differently.”
U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Miami Gardens Democrat who founded the 5000 Role Models project and invited Lewis to the breakfast, called Trump a poor role model.
“To have a president who responds to everything someone says on Twitter is disgraceful,” she told reporters.
“Please do not tweet anymore,” Wilson begged Trump. “All it does is, it causes divisions in our country. People have the right to express their opinions. You don’t have to tweet a response to everything a public official says. That is so unpresidential.”
Lewis’ presence drew an unusual amount of attention to the breakfast, an MLK Day tradition. Although Lewis was expected to hold a news conference in the morning, he arrived late and refused to answer questions after his speech.
He was welcomed on stage by a video montage — “Forty times, he was jailed, and forty times he emerged from jail to continue the fight for freedom” — and a standing ovation.
He covered the span of his life as a poor son of an Alabama sharecropper: picking cotton, raising chickens and dreaming of being a minister. His local college wouldn’t accept him because he was black, so he went to school in Nashville, writing to King along the way, who urged him to fight for admission — although he warned that it might cost his family their hard-earned 110 acres.
“My mother was so afraid, my father was so afraid, that we could lose the land, our home could be burned or bombed,” Lewis said. “So I continued to study in Nashville.”
And although he had been urged by his family to do otherwise, “I did get in trouble. I stood up. I spoke out. And I got arrested.”
Much has been accomplished in American race relations since, Lewis concluded. But the work hasn’t ended.
“When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, we have a moral obligation to do something, to say something and not be quiet,” he said. “You must have courage. You must be bold and never, ever give up! When you know that you’re right, be brave.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Lewis also skipped the 2001 inauguration of President George W. Bush.