Black lawmakers boycott Trump speech commemorating democracy

Democrats from Virginia‘s Black Legislative Caucus have protested against a visit by President Donald Trump because of what they termed his “racist and xenophobic” rhetoric.

They and other Democrats boycotted the visit.

Mr Trump travelled to historic Jamestown to commemorate the 400th anniversary of representative democracy in the Western Hemisphere.

He is accused of stoking racial tension by attacking minority Congress members.

“I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world,” Mr Trump said on Tuesday as he departed the White House for Jamestown.

What is the event celebrating?

The visit marks the day in 1619 when Virginia‘s first House of Burgesses met in Jamestown – the first English permanent colony in North America.

The group of white, male property owners became the inspiration for American democracy, and state legislatures and congresses across the continent.

“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,” Mr Trump said in his address to Virginia lawmakers and state officials in Jamestown.

He noted that 2019 marks 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia. Next month, the city plans to commemorate this anniversary.

“In the face of grave oppression and grave injustice, African Americans have built, strengthened, inspired, uplifted, protected, defended and sustained our nation from its very earliest days,” Mr Trump said.

The Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Washington, is leading a delegation of lawmakers to the West African nation of Ghana where they will visit castles where enslaved people were kept before being shipped in bondage to the New World.

On Wednesday she is due to address Ghanaian lawmakers.

What have Virginia lawmakers said?

The last-minute announcement by the White House that Mr Trump would visit the city led to boycotts by the state‘s Democratic lawmakers and Black Legislative Caucus.

“We will not be attending any part of the commemorative session where Donald Trump is in attendance,” the Virginia House Democrats said on Twitter. “The current president does not represent the values that we would celebrate at the 400th anniversary of the oldest democratic body in the Western world.”

The state‘s black caucus said Mr Trump‘s participation was “antithetical to the principles” that the group stood for.

Members intend to hold a rival event in Richmond on Tuesday.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney resigned from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation‘s steering committee for the commemoration – which issued the invitation to Mr Trump – saying that the Republican president “denigrates our democracy” and should not be welcomed.

Why has Trump been called racist?

Mr Trump has long been accused of stoking racial tensions, going back decades before he became a political figure.

In the past month, Mr Trump has accused four Democratic congresswoman of hating America and said they should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime-infested places from which they came”.

In the past week he has attacked Maryland congressman Elijah Cummings – who is black – saying that the Baltimore district that he represents is a “rodent-infested mess”.

On Tuesday, Mr Trump called his accusers “racist” and said his strategy of attacking minority lawmakers was helping him politically.

“I think I‘m helping myself,” Mr Trump said. “These people are living in hell in Baltimore.”

‘A speech more careful than his tweets‘

By the ‘s Chris Buckler in Jamestown

It says much about modern America that at a celebration of this country‘s democratic roots, there was a protest against its democratically elected president.

However, the summer of 1619 is remembered not only for that important first meeting of an assembly, it also marked the beginning of brutal years when Africans were brought to this land.

Donald Trump‘s recent criticisms of the city of Baltimore have angered, but the comments that some congresswomen of colour should go back to where they came from were beyond what many black Democrats were prepared to accept. They felt they had to boycott the event.

In his speech, Mr Trump was more careful with his words than in his tweets. And he made specific reference to the past wrongs committed against African Americans.

That won‘t stop the many accusations against the president who has repeatedly tried to defend himself against suggestions he is racist.

People who were at Jamestown to learn about their country‘s history were critical of both Mr Trump and the Democrats.

Many felt it was wrong to try to exclude the head of state from such a symbolic ceremony, even as they questioned his recent online attacks.

What‘s clear is that by design or angry accident, Mr Trump‘s tweets have helped ensure that race will be a key and extremely sensitive issue throughout the campaign for next year‘s presidential election.

More on race in the US