More than 30 members of Congress will boycott Donald Trump’s inauguration on Friday, amid escalating outrage over alleged connections between the president-elect’s team and Russia and disparaging remarks about civil rights veteran John Lewis.
As the US marked its national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr on Monday, the number of Democrats pledging to shun Friday’s ceremony and celebrations rose. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress and a candidate for chair of the Democratic National Committee, joined them. Their extraordinary step was praised by progressive leaders.
A little before 1pm, however, Martin Luther King III, the oldest child of Martin Luther King Jr, arrived at Trump Tower in New York to meet the president-elect.
Around 50 minutes later, King emerged from the building’s elevators and spoke to reporters. Asked why he had met Trump, who did not talk to the press but was seen shaking his guest’s hand, he said it was a constructive meeting and added: “We have got to move forward.”
King and William Wachtel, a New York lawyer, said they spoke to Trump about voter participation and how to carry forward King’s father’s legacy by making it “easier for everyone to vote”. “President-elect Trump has committed to working with us,” Wachtel said.
In 2013, a supreme court decision struck down key elements of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a central achievement of the civil rights movement designed to protect minority voters.
“This president may well” be in adherence with the spirit of the Voting Rights Act “and once again make it easy for all Americans to vote”, Wachtel said.
Asked about Lewis, King said: “Things get said on both sides in the heat of emotion. And at some point in this nation we’ve got to move forward.” He added that he would “continue to evaluate” Trump’s commitment to representing all Americans.
“I believe we have to consistently engage with pressure, public pressure,” King said. “It doesn’t happen automatically, my father and his team understood that, did that.
“I think my father would be very concerned about the 50 to 60 million people living in poverty. It’s insanity that we have poor people in this nation, it’s unacceptable. We need to be talking about how to clothe people, how do we feed people.”
One civil rights veteran told the Guardian she supported the Trump-King meeting but also praised members of Congress who plan to boycott the inauguration.
“Those members of Congress feel that not attending the inauguration is making a statement that they are against the politics put forth by Donald Trump,” Doris Crenshaw, who campaigned with Rosa Parks and met Martin Luther King Jr before his assassination in 1968, told the Guardian.
She called on Trump to call Lewis and “have a conversation”.
Cornell William Brooks, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), has demanded that Trump apologize to Lewis, the long-time Georgia congressman who had his skull broken by the police during the pivotal Selma to Montgomery march of 1965.
Lewis said last week he would not attend the inauguration and did not regard Trump as a legitimate president, following intelligence reports of Russian interference in the election.
Trump launched a fierce counterattack on Twitter in which he accused Lewis of being “all talk” and warned him to focus on his district which was “crime infested”.
On Monday in Miami, Lewis spoke at a breakfast to celebrate the MLK holiday. He did not mention Trump but invoked King’s philosophy of non-violence in a hinted rebuke at the president-elect’s vitriolic style.
“You must never, ever hate,” he said. “Stand up, speak up, when you see something that is not right and not fair and not just, you have a moral obligation to do something and say something.”
Lewis spoke of his childhood, of trying out his voice as a preacher while tending chickens at his family farm.
“The chickens listened better than some of my fellow members in Congress listen to me now,” he said, to laugher. He also told of a member of the Ku Klux Klan who once beat him up later coming to his office on Capitol Hill, where he has been a congressman since 1987, to apologize and ask for forgiveness.
Lewis added that he did now know where his career – or America – would be without Martin Luther King Jr. “He freed us, he liberated us,” he said.
Martin Luther King III was ushered into Trump Tower by the president-elect’s surrogate and former reality TV participant Omarosa Manigault. The agenda for the meeting was not publicised beforehand.
“I think it’s good that he meets Trump,” said Crenshaw, who was vice-president of the NAACP youth council during the civil rights years.
“You cannot operate with a ‘no talk’ policy: someone has to get in there and talk to Donald Trump and I think King should be congratulated for his efforts. It’s important to address poverty and education problems that we have nationwide.”
Some of the members of Congress boycotting the inauguration, such as Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, Nydia Velazquez of New York and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, have said they will attend the Women’s March on Washington on Saturday instead.
The Women’s March is expected to attract hundreds of thousands rallying for progressive causes, from women’s and racial equality to reproductive rights, the environment and the minimum wage.
Kaylin Whittingham, president of the Association of Black Women Attorneys, a partner organization of the march, said those marching instead of going to the inauguration were showing Trump the power of action over words.
“If you go to the inauguration and you do not go to the march it looks like you are supporting whatever Donald Trump stands for,” she said. “But if you go to the march you are lending your voice and being part of this movement.”
Whittingham said Trump had shown great disrespect to Lewis. “John Lewis has been in action since Trump was a little boy,” she said.
Trump’s remarks about Lewis brought anger among congressional opponents to boiling point. Some planning to boycott the inauguration followed Lewis in citing Trump’s alleged links with Russia, which are the subject of controversial reports ranging from business dealings to whether Russian intelligence has compromisingmaterial on him.
Trump has said he thinks Russia was behind hacks against Democratic party bodies, but he has also deepened a potentially damaging rift with the intelligence agencies.
Congressman Mark DeSaulnier of California said in a video statement he would not attend the inauguration because he believes Trump as president will be in violation of the constitution, because of conflicts of interest with his business empire.