Donald Trump celebrates rise of democracy amid controversy over racial comments
The president was visiting the old settlement of Jamestown but also noted the ‘horrors of slavery’ in his speech.
President Donald Trump marked the 400th anniversary of the rise of American democracy on Tuesday by celebrating “four incredible centuries of history, heritage and commitment to the righteous cause of American self-government”.
His speech in historic Jamestown played out against a backdrop of tension over his recent disparaging remarks about minority members of Congress and was boycotted by black Virginia state legislators.
In his remarks, Mr Trump noted that 1619 also was the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colonies, saying: “We remember every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage.”
Mr Trump described the rise of democracy in the New World as “truly a momentous occasion”.
“Self-government in Virginia did not just give us a state we love — in a very true sense it gave us the country we love, the United States of America,” he said.
His speech was interrupted by a protester who stood up and held signs that read “deport hate” and “reunite my family”.
Great reception in Jamestown by both REPUBLICANS & DEMOCRATS. Respect for our Country’s incredible Heritage. Thank you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2019
The man was led out of the speech site as some members of the crowd chanted: “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
Ahead of his speech, Mr Trump said the black legislators who announced a boycott of the event were going “against their own people”.
Mr Trump claimed African Americans “love the job” he is doing and are “happy as hell” with his recent comments criticising a majority black district in the Baltimore area and its congressman.
In fact, African Americans continue to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of the president’s performance.
According to Gallup polling, approval among black Americans has hovered around one in 10 over the course of Mr Trump’s presidency, with 8% approving in June.
A last-minute announcement that the president would participate in the Jamestown commemoration of the first representative assembly in the Western Hemisphere injected tension into an event years in the making.
Demonstrators gathered Tuesday morning near the site where Mr Trump was to speak.
“The commemoration of the birth of this nation and its democracy will be tarnished unduly with the participation of the President, who continues to make degrading comments toward minority leaders, promulgate policies that harm marginalised communities, and use racist and xenophobic rhetoric,” the black caucus said in a statement.
The boycott follows Mr Trump’s weekend comments referring to US Rep. Elijah Cummings’ majority black Baltimore-area district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess”.
A caucus statement did not specifically mention Mr Cummings but said Mr Trump’s “repeated attacks on Black legislators and comments about Black communities makes him ill-suited to honour and commemorate such a monumental period in history”.
Black Caucus chairman Del. Lamont Bagby said the group reached a unanimous decision to boycott the event more than a week ago but that the president has “continued his attacks” since then, including with his remarks about Mr Cummings’ district.
On Tuesday morning, Mr Trump tweeted: “Heading to Jamestown, Virginia. Word is the Democrats will make it as uncomfortable as possible, but that’s ok because today is not about them!”
Caucus members also pledged to boycott the rest of a week-long series of anniversary events and have instead planned alternative commemorations Tuesday in Richmond, Virginia’s capital.
At an early-morning ceremony, Virginia governor Ralph Northam noted that while the ideals of freedom and representative government flourished in Jamestown four centuries ago, a ship carrying African people who would be sold into slavery arrived in Virginia just weeks after that first assembly.
“So today, as we hold these commemorations of the first representative assembly in the free world, we have to remember who it included, and who it did not,” Mr Northam said.
The story of Virginia is rooted in the simultaneous pursuit of both liberty and enslavement. A true commemoration of the founding of our democracy requires us to examine how we have lived up to our ideals, or failed to do so.https://t.co/XgtXYdd63c— Ralph Northam (@GovernorVA) July 30, 2019
“That’s the paradox of Virginia, of America, and of our representative democracy.”
The Virginia General Assembly, considered the oldest continuously operating legislative body in North America, grew out of the assembly that first gathered in 1619.
The anniversary comes at a time of heightened election-year partisanship in Virginia in the aftermath of political scandals that engulfed the state’s top three elected officials, all Democrats.
A blackface photo scandal nearly destroyed Mr Northam’s career.
Heading to Jamestown, Virginia. Word is the Democrats will make it as uncomfortable as possible, but that’s ok because today is not about them!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2019
Then, as it looked like Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax might ascend to the governorship, two women accused him of sexual assault.
Mr Fairfax, who attended Tuesday’s event where Mr Trump spoke, has vehemently denied those allegations.
State attorney general Mark Herring has separately faced calls to resign after acknowledging he dressed in blackface decades ago.
All three men remain in office.