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Why Trump's Attack on John Lewis Came at a Particularly Bad Time

For many African-Americans, the timing and tone of Trump's response to Rep. Lewis's criticism of him showed a startling lack of respect and reverence.
Image: John Lewis, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on March 19, 1965
From left center, John Lewis (holding bottle), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy, march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 19, 1965. Others unidentified.AP
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The timing was particularly unfortunate: As Americans prepared to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., President-elect Donald Trump tore into one of the civil rights movement's most iconic figures.

Trump — who drew only 8% of the black vote in the general election last November — appeared to hit a new low in his already fraught relationship with the black community.

After Rep. John Lewis questioned his legitimacy in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press," Trump dismissed the Georgia Democrat, who was brutally beaten and repeatedly imprisoned as he protested for voting rights alongside King in 1965, as "all talk" and "no action." The president-elect also described Lewis' district, which includes the Atlanta metro area, as "crime-infested."

Trump has been roundly criticized by both Democrats and Republicans for the remarks.

The president-elect's defenders, including spokesman Sean Spicer and Vice President Mike Pence, have argued that he had a right to respond to someone who had insulted him. For many African-Americans, the tone and timing of Trump's response — over the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend — showed a startling lack of respect and reverence for Lewis, a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner and a "Big Six" leader of the civil rights movement who was brutally beaten and repeatedly imprisoned as a young man protesting for voting rights alongside King in 1965.

"Trump's attack on John Lewis is particularly infuriating because it shows an ignorance of history, and an utter disdain for a man who risked his life for the greater good, to make America better," said writer and commentator David A. Love. "Like Dr. King, this man is one of our role models."

"You know, I would hope that the president-elect would today pick up the phone, put down the Twitter stuff and just give John Lewis a call," added Rep. Elijah Cummings on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "He is indeed a hero. The 40 some members of the Congressional Black Caucus would not be in the caucus — we wouldn't be in Congress probably if it were not for people like John Lewis who put their lives on the line for us."

Related: John Lewis Leads the Charge Against Donald Trump as U.S. Marks Martin Luther King Jr. Day

New York Times columnist Charles Blow was even more blunt in a piece published on MLK Day: "Donald Trump doesn’t even deserve to stand in John Lewis’s shadow. The spectacular obscenity of Trump’s comment is incomparable and deeply repulsive."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and associates lead a procession following the casket of Jimmy Lee Jackson during a funeral service in Marion, Alabama, March 1, 1965. In November 2010, former Alabama state trooper James Bonard Fowler pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the 1965 shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson during a civil rights demonstration in Marion.AP

On Monday, Trump commemorated the holiday by meeting privately with the civil rights icon's eldest son Martin Luther King III at Trump Tower. His public schedule included no other events.

But following a political career that began with a discredited crusade to question the first African-American president's citizenship, a presidential campaign where he broadly depicting black communities as imperiled and hopeless, and a presidential transition which has featured only one African-American cabinet nominee (Dr. Ben Carson), Trump may have a lot more work to do to find common ground with the black community.

"Public safety is a priority for every big city mayor. If Mr. Trump possesses a magic wand to solve those complex issues, the question becomes: What have you been waiting for?" said Goldie Taylor, an Atlanta-based writer and editor-at-large for The Daily Beast. "He has long had the access, resources and opportunity to make a meaningful investment in communities. So I wonder now, where has he been?"

"I am proud to call the 5th district my home and John Lewis is my congressman," she added. "I raised my children there and I can think of no better place on Earth."

PHOTOS – Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Civil Rights Icon’s Life in Pictures

During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged that he would not only bring back jobs but would eliminate violent crime in at-risk communities of color. However, when pressed for specific plans, Trump only proposed an expansion of stop-and-frisk, a controversial policing technique which has been deemed racially biased in federal court.

Meanwhile, Trump, who infamously once boasted that he enjoyed a "great relationship with the blacks," has suggested that a lower black voter turnout last November was beneficial to him. Last month, at a rally in front of a predominately white crowd in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Trump thanked "smart" African-Americans who “didn’t come out to vote.”

Ironically, the cause of Lewis' life was ensuring the right to vote be enjoyed be all Americans.

Related: Trump’s History Undermines New Outreach to Black Voters

More recently, the nearly 77-year-old lawmaker has made headlines for his testimony against Trump's attorney general pick, Sen. Jeff Sessions, and for leading an all-night sit-in in Congress to protest the lack of legislative action on gun control, in the wake of the Orlando shooting massacre, last June.

Lewis, who has described his past civil disobedience as an act of causing "good trouble," has not backed down from his critiques of Trump, and has even called for a special commission to investigate Russia's alleged hacking to help bolster the president-elect's campaign.