North America

Black leaders shun Trump at historic event

(The New York Times)

President Donald Trump has hailed the "righteous cause of American self-government" at an event boycotted by black leaders amid a simmering race row.

President Donald Trump has marked the 400th anniversary of the rise of American democracy by celebrating "four incredible centuries of history, heritage and commitment to the righteous cause of American self-government".

His speech in historic Jamestown, Virginia, on Tuesday played out against a backdrop of tension over his recent disparaging remarks about minority members of congress and was boycotted by black 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".

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 Trump's presidency, with eight per cent 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 on 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.

Elijah Cummings
Elijah Cummings.
AAP

The boycott follows Mr Trump's weekend comments referring to US Representation Elijah Cummings' majority-black Baltimore-area district as a "disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess".

A caucus statement did not specifically mention 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 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.

"That's the paradox of Virginia, of America, and of our representative democracy."

Blacks support Baltimore criticism

Mr Trump says he has received numerous calls and letters from African Americans thanking him for his tough talk about conditions in Baltimore despite accusations from Democrats that his comments have been racist.

In fresh comments to reporters at the White House, Mr Trump said the correspondence he has received from African Americans has been larger than nearly any other subject.

"The African American community is so thankful. They've called me and said finally someone is telling the truth," he said, adding that he had only spoken out about the "corrupt politics of Baltimore" and wasn't making a racist comment.

"It's a corrupt city. There is no question about it," he said, blaming Mr Cummings, a foe of the president and chairman of the House Oversight Committee.

He suggested Mr Cummings turn his oversight authority to the billions of dollars in federal money that he said has been pumped into Baltimore "to no avail".

Baltimore Mayor Bernard "Jack" Young on Monday defended his city in an interview with USA Today, saying, "We do have our problems, but we are no different than any other American city."

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