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Tue Jan 17, 2017, 04:02 PM

Ray Arsenault: John Lewis and Donald Trump truth and consequences

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During the past year, we have all grown accustomed to President-elect Donald Trump's sharply barbed tweets. Every opponent, it seems, is fair game for his 140-character expressions of wrath. No amount of virtue or truth can shield critics from his verbal attacks and counter-attacks, and there is no evidence that the tweeter in chief harbors any concern for propriety or what normally passes for common decency or restraint. If we ever doubted the depth of his reckless commitment to denigrating even his most revered enemies, the recent assault on John Lewis' life and legacy should put that doubt to rest. After the Alabama-born Atlanta congressman questioned the legitimacy of Trump's election and impending presidency giving voice to a suspicion shared by millions of Americans the president-elect tweeted: "Congressman John 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!"

Here Trump is belittling not just any liberal Democratic congressman but a civil rights icon often characterized as "the conscience of the Congress." While a spirited defense of his legitimacy as president-elect is understandable, Trump's ad hominem attack on one of the civil rights movement's greatest heroes is another thing altogether, particularly when it was launched three days before a national holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Throughout his career, both before and after his initial election to Congress in 1986, Lewis has been a paragon of ethical consistency and inspiring leadership. As anyone familiar with the narrative of the struggle for civil rights during the past half-century knows, the charge that Lewis is all talk and no action borders on the absurd.

I cannot pretend to be an objective observer of the Trump-Lewis contretemps. I have known John Lewis for 17 years; we have worked together on a number of civil rights-related projects, including Freedom Rider reunions, civil rights tours, Smithsonian symposia, oral history research for my book on the Freedom Rides, documentary films, and even an appearance on the Oprah show featuring John and 180 other Freedom Riders. Through it all, my respect and admiration for him has never flagged. Along with the legendary historian John Hope Franklin, he is the greatest person I have been privileged to meet during my lifetime.

Raymond Arsenault holds the John Hope Franklin Professorship of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Currently on sabbatical leave, he is working on the final stages of "Ashe: The Life and Times of an American Hero," which will be published by Simon and Schuster next year. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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