It is a safe bet to say that President Trump never heard of Medgar Evers before today.
For anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the civil rights movement, the role played by Evers is well known.
From his efforts to bring justice for the murdered Emmett Till in 1955, to his efforts to bring voting rights to Mississippians, to his assassination in the driveway in front of his home in 1963, Medgar Evers will forever be an icon for the movement that never ends.
Only a few hours before Byron De La Beckwith murdered Medgar Evers shortly after midnight June 12, 1963, President John F. Kennedy directly addressed the issues that Evers had fought for in a nationally televised speech declaring that the time for civil rights had arrived.
Now that was a presidential speech that brought attention to the inequality that existed … and exists … in this nation.
That was a far cry from the spectacle that occurred this morning in Jackson, Mississippi.
The opening ceremony of the Civil Rights Museum had already stirred controversy, with the head of the NAACP and two civil rights icons serving in Congress, Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, and Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Mississippi, declining to be at the opening of the museum due to the presence of Trump.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders added to the controversy by saying it was “unfortunate” the congressmen would not join President Trump in honoring those who had participated in the civil rights movement, not seeming to realize that those men, Lewis and Thompson, are among those who are being honored, with Lewis being the last remaining speaker from the March on Washington.
What Sanders said, however, pales in comparison to the insult President Trump delivered in his speech this morning.
With no teleprompter to aid him, the president read through a speech that he was obviously seeing for the first time, rarely lifting his eyes to look at those who were gathered to honor those who gave their time, sacrificed and in some cases gave their lives and the movement that inspired the nation.
Trump departed from his prepared remarks, the work of professional speechwriters that featured words with more than one syllable, after reading about the accomplishments of those who fought for civil rights.
“That’s big stuff, very big phrases, very big words.”
Yes, they were and Trump was having difficulty reading them.
The first civil rights icon mentioned in the speech was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., probably the one name that Trump knew, referring to him as someone he had “studied and watched for my entire life.”
When the speech reached the portion concerning Medgar Evers, Trump once again departed from the script, noting that he had met Evers’ brother, Charles Evers, earlier that morning.
Trump described Evers as someone “who I liked a lot,” then changing roles from someone delivering a serious speech at an important function, Trump took on the persona of the master of ceremonies at a civic club dinner.
“Stand up please, stand up,” then he made it clear why he liked Charles Evers. “You were so nice. I appreciate it. You were so nice.”
And so the time that should have been spent remembering the contributions of Medgar Evers became all about Donald Trump.
After the introduction, Trump hurried his way through the prepared remarks detailing Medgar Evers’ service to this country, both in the military and through his work for civil rights.
Trump appeared startled when he came across the words noting the presence of Evers’ widow, Myrlie Evers-Williams.
We are deeply privileged to be joined today by …” Trump paused, his eyes darting across the room …”by his incredible widow, that’s loved throughout large sections of our country (long pause) beyond this area.” It was obvious Trump had no idea she was going to be there and no idea of what she looked like.
“I just want to say hello to Myrlie.”
No, Mr. President, you did not want to say hello to “Myrlie.” When you are addressing a woman who herself is a civil rights icon and a woman whose 84 years on this earth have earned her a great deal of respect, you may refer to her as “Mrs. Evers,” or “Mrs. Williams” but you may not refer to her as “Myrlie.”
To compound his error, Trump asked, “Where’s Myrlie?” and when he finally spotted her, he added, “How are you, Myrlie?” He then thanked her, once again calling her by her first name.
After that, the president hurried through the portion of the speech concerning Medgar Evers, concluding with Evers’ burial in Arlington National Cemetery, a part of the speech that included some particularly elegant speechwriting, not delivered in a particularly elegant fashion, about Evers’ final resting place being a cemetery where people of all races remain for eternity bound by their service to their country.
The words could have been poignant if delivered by someone who had a clear understanding of what they meant or if they had been spoken by someone who had taken the time to read the speech before he uttered the words.
At the end of a speech that seemed to take much longer than nine minutes, Trump received just a polite smattering of applause.
Who could blame the audience for its muted reception?
The man who just spoke to them about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Medgar Evers was the same man who appointed a panel that seemed to have a direct call to restrict voting rights for African Americans.
He was the same man who launched his campaign with attacks on Hispanic immigrants and perhaps, most of all, Donald Trump was the man who equated white supremacists marching in Charlottesville with those protesting against racism.
The pundits on the cable news programs debated whether Trump attending the opening of the museum was a good idea. Some saw it as an insult to those who fought for civil rights. Others suggested it was a good idea for the president to be there and to perhaps open dialogue that can improve race relations.
After all, as President Trump has told us, “There are some very fine people on both sides.”