How 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls are spending MLK weekend

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are expected to honor the slain civil rights leader.
Image: Early morning light shines on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall on Jan. 19, 2015.
Early morning light shines on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall on Jan. 19, 2015.Gabriella Demczuk / Getty Images file

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By Aaron Morrison

The 2020 Democratic presidential candidates field is taking shape. Some potentials have formed exploratory committees, officially launched bids or made no announcements at all. Undoubtedly, Democratic hopefuls will use the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend to draw contrasts with the civil rights record of their only declared Republican opponent — the man they're looking to oust from the White House in two years.

The partial government shutdown, and the fact that federal workers are going without paychecks, will surely be a common theme in their remarks.

“Martin Luther King Day is a time for these candidates to show us more than just empty nostalgia or pretty words about Dr. King’s leadership,” the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist who has been an influential voice in past Democratic presidential primary contests, said in a statement to NBCBLK. “It’s an opportunity to actually have a substantive discussion about their public policy agenda and their commitment to action going forward.”

Rev. Al Sharpton is flanked by Bishop Charles Blake and Martin Luther King III as they lead a march in Memphis.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Sharpton and his civil rights group, the National Action Network, are scheduled to host three purported presidential contenders on Monday. In Washington, the group’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day Breakfast will feature former Vice President Joe Biden and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor will give remarks, and Biden will receive an honor from the group.

Biden will speak to King’s legacy, a spokesperson for him told NBCBLK.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who announced she had formed an exploratory committee on Tuesday, is expected at the network’s headquarters in Harlem on Monday afternoon. Dozens of local, state and federal leaders will rally around a “common agenda for 2020 presidential race,” the network said. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who, despite a recent visit to the early caucusing state of Iowa, has said he isn’t running for president, is also scheduled to participate.

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who has yet to make an announcement about his presidential plans, is scheduled to speak at Martin Luther King Jr. weekend events in the South, a key courting ground for Democratic White House hopefuls. His office said Booker would address thousands of charter school students in New Orleans on Friday, and was scheduled to attend a prayer service and march on Monday organized by the state conference of the NAACP in Columbia, South Carolina.

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“As we pause to remember the man on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it’s important not to forget his movement," Booker said in a statement to NBCBLK. "What really made Dr. King great was that he inspired us to be great. He ignited others to engage and to stand up and fight for justice in this nation. He inspired this country to live up to its highest ideals."

“There is more work to do. So the best way to celebrate King is not just recognizing his powerful legacy, but also recognizing the power each of us has to make a difference, and working every day to use that power in a positive, worthwhile way.”

Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who was a contender in the 2016 Democratic primaries, is also participating in the the NAACP commemorative events in Columbia, his office confirmed on Thursday. Sanders will speak at a rally at the statehouse.

Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio has yet to officially announce a bid, but plans to hold campaign-style events in Iowa and New Hampshire, another early primary state. The senator’s office confirmed his participation in an annual King breakfast celebration in Cleveland, followed by a volunteer event at a local elementary school.

”Dr. King taught that ‘all labor has dignity.’ For far too many people in this country today, hard work isn’t paying off like it should.” Brown said in a statement to NBCBLK. “And as we work to change that, we must acknowledge that it’s even worse for workers of color — not only because they are disproportionately affected by the economic challenges, but because they face those challenges while also having to navigate institutional racism that makes it even harder to get ahead no matter how hard they work.”

Sen. Kamala Harris of California is widely expected to announce her presidential on or around MLK Jr. Day, according to multiple news reports. The announcement might be made from her hometown of Oakland, California. Her office did not confirm her plans for the weekend.

Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to members of the media on Capitol Hill on Aug. 21, 2018.Zach Gibson / Getty Images file

“Right now, I believe we are at an inflection point in the history of our country, a moment in time like when my parents met in Oakland in the 1960s, marching and shouting for justice,” Harris said in a statement to NBCBLK. “It’s important today to remember that Dr. King’s fight then was about understanding that we are all equal and affirming that we will fight for that beautiful premise.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who was the first to announce that she had formed an exploratory committee, will attend a King memorial breakfast in Boston, her office said.

“It's incredibly important to honor the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and reaffirm the fight for social, racial and economic justice," Warren said in a statement to NBCBLK.

Representatives for Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, neither of whom has made anything official, and Julián Castro, the former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who made his candidacy official last weekend, did not immediately respond to requests for information about their King holiday plans.

As for President Donald Trump, the White House hasn't announced his plans for the holiday weekend. Whatever Trump does on Monday should go smoother then his first Martin Luther King Jr. Day as president last year, when he found himself in the middle of a firestorm after being accused of using profanity in referring to Haiti and African countries.

A day before Trump signed a proclamation marking the 2018 federal holiday, it was widely reported that in a meeting with members of Congress he questioned why they sought visas for immigrants from “s---hole countries” such as Haiti, El Salvador and African nations.

Trump later admitted using "rough" language in the meeting, just not the language attributed to him. The remark still became a rallying point for Democrats, civil rights leaders and King’s children, who blasted the president at events across the nation.

For Democrats commemorating King’s legacy this weekend, Brittany Packnett, a Black Lives Matter activist and political commentator, warns them not to wax poetic about a whitewashed version of King's message.

“More than anything, whatever charge presidential hopefuls offer people on MLK Monday, they must be diligent in pursuing it themselves on a regular Tuesday,” Packnett said in a interview. “Dr. King’s rhetoric was beautiful and provocative, but his actions backed it up. Theirs must, too.”

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