Civil-rights icon Congressman John Lewis, in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, indicated he didn’t think President-elect Donald Trump would be a “legitimate” president and that he would not be attending his inauguration because Russia conspired to interfere in America’s presidential election.
Prickly—never one to be punched and not punch back—Donald Trump responded with a stereotypical, erroneous tweet about Representative Lewis’s not paying enough attention to his “crime infested” congressional district, “which is in horrible shape and falling apart.” Congressman Lewis represents a booming downtown Atlanta and many thriving middle-class neighborhoods, including the third-largest business district in Atlanta, in Buckhead.
It’s important to distinguish between “legitimate” and “legal.” Congressman Lewis did not say Donald Trump wouldn’t be a legal president. While Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, he did win the presidency legally through the Electoral College.
Coming out of the civil-rights movement, Congressman Lewis has never limited his thinking to a choice between legal and legitimate. He grew up under legal signs that read “white” and “colored” on restaurants, restrooms, and swimming pools, and rode on buses marked colored seat to the rear. They were legal signs, but he didn’t see them as legitimate. American apartheid was legal, but not legitimate!
By what moral authority does Donald Trump, the chief proponent of the racist “birther” accusation intended to delegitimize the first African-American president, Barack Obama, question John Lewis’s saying he sees Trump as an illegitimate president?
And by what moral right do Republicans—led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan—challenge John Lewis? They and their Republican colleagues treated President Obama as illegitimate by using a strategy of opposing everything President Obama supported, even it was previously a Republican policy or plan, such as the Affordable Care Act.
But in my mind, Congressman Lewis has triggered a much bigger question. That is, “Has the United States ever elected a legitimate president?”
When George Washington was elected, black slaves, Native Americans, women, and most white men without property weren’t allowed to vote. That was legal, but not legitimate, in terms of a representative democracy. It wasn’t until the 15th Amendment (passed in 1870) that black men were allowed to vote—and that was only legally and theoretically, not in actuality. We were legally electing presidents, but in a so-called democratic representative government of, by, and for the people, we weren’t electing fully legitimate presidents without the participation of slaves, women, Native Americans, and white men without property.