Charles Steele isn’t waiting for his phone to ring.
When President Donald Trump comes to town on Friday to launch his Black Voices for Trump Coalition, Steele doesn’t expect administration officials to seek out his insights as national president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the organization founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other stalwarts of the civil rights movement.
Trump, he said, has largely ignored black issues during his three years in office, especially those that affect the many who are struggling.
From his office on Auburn Avenue, in the heart of black Atlanta, Steele looks out of his window to see homeless men and women, including the one who slept in his doorway overnight, wandering the same streets that King walked down generations ago.
“Until he comes into the heart of Atlanta’s inner city and sees and talks to the people sleeping under the bridges, I have no confidence that any of this matters,” said Steele. “The racial divide that we are experiencing with the Trump Administration is real.”
A year ahead of the 2020 election, Trump’s campaign is apparently trying to bridge some of that divide with the newly formed coalition. Organizers have been tight-lipped about Friday’s invite-only event, but a senior White House official said Atlanta was picked as the location of the initiative’s roll-out because of its prominence in black culture and its fast-growing African-American population.
In 2016, a paltry 8% of black voters nationwide cast their ballots for Trump. And a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research showed that only 4% of African Americans think Trump’s actions and policies have benefited black people.
But, however small his black support now, those who stand with the president believe it would grow if black voters looked at what he’s done.
“How many people in our community have been bitching and moaning about prison reform? Done. How many have been bitching and moaning about jobs? Done,” said Lucretia Hughes, a black conservative and Trump supporter in Loganville. “The guy has done more for the black community than I have ever seen.”
CJ Pearson, a 17-year-old high school senior in Augusta, has emerged as one of the youngest and most prominent black faces in the conservative movement.
“The president coming to launch his coalition in Atlanta, which is known for black excellence, speaks to how much Georgia is at the epicenter of what remains to be seen in 2020,” said Pearson. “This just speaks to the president’s commitment to assuring the advancement of people of color in this country. He has a message that is inclusive.”
The guest list for the event, however, won’t include many of Atlanta’s prominent African Americans. The city is a stronghold for Democrats.
Lashandra Newton Span, a physical therapist who lives in Fairburn, believes that Trump has no understanding or real concern for minority communities, and called his event “a feeble attempt to hide the failure of his policies for votes.”
Span, who is a Democrat, said just about every black person she knows agrees with her on Trump. He seems, she said, to rely on the same black faces to showcase his support among African Americans.
“The ones I see on television are the same ones you see in different states,” Span said. “And I wonder if they are getting paid to be there.”
Leo Smith, the former minority voter engagement director for the Georgia GOP, describes himself as a one-time casual Trump supporter who has since been turned off by the president’s rhetoric. He said Trump is going to need every African American and Hispanic vote he can get. But this is not the way to do it.
“When you are doing something only for black people, you are only looking for the photo op,” Smith said. “I have never seen the Democrats do a rally just for black people.”
Last month, Trump opened a three-day forum on criminal justice at the historically black Benedict College in Columbia, S.C. by promoting a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill he signed in 2018 while bringing on stage several people who were released from prison as a result of the overhaul.
If those gestures were meant to appeal to black voters, many say he did just as much to alienate them. The audience was hand-picked and only 10 Benedict students were invited. Seven attended.
Those who were there heard the president harshly criticize the record of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Trump insists that his administration has done more to help black people than any other president “in the history of our country.”
In Atlanta, Trump is expected to talk record-low unemployment rates for black Americans, as well as the fact that his administration has increased federal funding for historically black colleges and universities by 14.3%. He also likely will mention some of his high-profile black supporters, like King’s niece, Georgians Alveda King, and Bruce Levell, a Dunwoody jeweler, who ran Trump’s black outreach group in 2016.
The president’s detractors have been quick to point to his attacks on Obama and other black leaders, his slowness to denounce white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., and his claim that U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ district in metro Atlanta is in “horrible shape and falling apart.” While Lewis’ 5th Congressional District had a higher unemployment and poverty rates than the national and state averages, it also has a higher rate of education attainment and is home to Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines.
He also accused Lewis, who repeatedly put himself in harm’s way while protesting for civil rights and had his skull fractured during a march, of being “all talk” and “no action.”
Staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this article.
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