King Day events turn political: Bishop says Trump an ‘international embarrassment’

Bishop Reginald Thomas Jackson, presiding Prelate-Sixth episcopal District, was the featured speaker at Monday’s prayer breakfast Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

DOVER — As keynote speaker, Bishop Reginald Thomas Jackson repeatedly hammered on President Trump’s administration and encouraged local churches to stand up and be the “conscience of the nation” at the 35th annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast in Dover on Monday.

“I cannot, and will not, refer to the present occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue by his title — I refer to him as our international embarrassment,” said Bishop Jackson, to the audience. “This embarrassment is pitting this nation against itself. The United States is the greatest country on the face of the earth. It is blessed with wonderful people; white, black, brown, yellow. Its greatest strength is its diversity. But we are being divided. He doesn’t want to be the president of all the citizens of the United States, he only wants to be president of that 37 percent that supports anything he does — which is directly in opposition to everything Martin Luther King stood for.”

Interim president of Delaware State University Dr. Wilma Mishoe at the MLK prayer breakfast. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Bishop Jackson paused frequently for applause and cries of agreement from the full house of several hundred breakfast-goers at the Modern Maturity Center — where the Zeta Rho Lambda chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity routinely hosts the event.

The Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity bills itself as the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African American men. It was founded by seven men in 1906 at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Since then, 175,000 men have been initiated into the fraternity. There are now 353 college chapters on campuses and 339 alumni chapters in 45 states.

Many delegates, public servants, law enforcement officers and politicians turned out for the event. Caesar Rodney High School’s Jazz Ensemble performed a rendition of John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” as arranged a cappella group, Pentatonix. The MLK Achievement Award was given to Lake Forest High School student Elle Harden and the Brother Hardin T. Watkins Achievement Award was given to Dover High School student Dion Baker.

The Dover Air Force Base Color Guard presenting the American and Delaware flags at the MLK prayer breakfast.. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Originally a Dover native and graduate of Delaware State University, Bishop Jackson went on to become the presiding prelate of the Sixth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which encompasses over 500 churches in Georgia.

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen during the playing of the national anthem at the MLK prayer breakfast. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Speaking to the theme of the event — “Remember, Celebrate, Act! A Day On, Not A Day Off!’” — Bishop Jackson claimed that Americans were in “perilous times” and encouraged speaking up for “what is right.” He invoked a quotation from Dr. King’s final speech before his assassination in 1968 that read: “Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ Vanity asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But, conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’”

Applying the quotation to the Trump administration, he Bishop Jackson encouraged attendees to push back against the “status quo.”

“All day today (Monday) and over last weekend, we have heard and will hear our political leaders honoring Dr. King with their lips but at the same time, taking actions to undermine what he sought to achieve,” he said. “We are in this time of challenge and controversy not by accident It’s because there is a deliberate and intentional effort to turn back time in America.

Mt. Ziion Childrens choir, directed by Loretta Moore, singing to crowd attending the Martin Luther King Celebration of the Dream program at Delaware State University Monday. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

The current administration’s motto: ‘make America great again’ is simply code language for: ‘let’s turn back time to when civil rights, voting rights and equal opportunity were not in place.’”

Pointing to what he sees as divisive rhetoric, Bishop Jackson condemned President Trump’s epithets against professional football players who have knelt during the National Anthem.

“Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players kneel — not in disrespect to the flag, not in disrespect to veterans, not in disrespect to the United States, but in peaceful protest — and our international embarrassment calls them ‘SOBs,’” said Bishop Jackson. “But, he’s said that white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members who marched with bats were some ‘good people.’ Is it right?”

The Bishop reserved particular ire for comments President Trump allegedly made last Thursday. The Associated Press reported that unnamed sources said the president asked rhetorically why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and “shithole countries” in Africa rather than places like Norway, as he rejected a bipartisan immigration deal. President Trump has denied making those comments

The Caesar Rodney high school jazz ensemble performing at Monday’s celebration of the 35th annual Martin Luther King Jr. prayer breakfast. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

“The immigration debate isn’t about having illegal immigrants in our country, our international embarrassment messed up last week and let us know what it’s really about,” said Bishop Jackson. “By 2040 the projection is that the United States will no longer be predominantly white, it’ll be predominantly people of color. The immigration debate isn’t about illegal immigrants, it’s about maintaining the status quo. He talks about wanting to bring learning and skill into this country — have you seen his spelling?”

Challenging the audience, Bishop Jackson said be believed that churches — specifically black ones — needed to stand up for “what is right” in “perilous times.” To accomplish this, he suggested three priorities: “become the conscience of America,” “not only speak out, but act” and “live like we know God.”

“It was black preachers who gave leadership and moved this nation during the civil rights movement,” he said. “Let me remind you that Martin Luther King came out of the black church, Rosa Parks came out of the black church — today our country is losing its conscience about what’s right, we are more partisan than we are American. The black church must once again become the conscience of America. That means you have to have some backbone. You have got to have some courage. You have got to speak truth to power.”

Sankofa African dancers performing at the DSU birthday celebration Monday at Delaware State University. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

Before concluding his speech, the Bishop spoke to perceived “fear” in the country. Pointing to a Gallup poll and several from various new agencies taken last year, he said that 50 percent of Americans allegedly feel that the word “afraid” best describes their state of mind in the “times we live in.”

“What really troubled me was that they also polled people of faith, and those polls showed 48 percent,” he said. “Everywhere I go across the country, people are telling me they’re afraid. We’re alarmed, uncertain. You’ve got a madman in North Korea, and that madman says we have a deranged man in Washington. Now both of them have access to nuclear weapons.”

Surprised by the fear, Bishop Jackson said this is “nothing new” for the black community.

“I don’t understand why black folk are afraid,” he said. “We act like this is the first time we’ve been through this. We’ve been through this before, this is nothing new. In these times, we have to live like we know God. What motivated Martin Luther King was that he knew and trusted God. He put his life on the line because of that.”

Maxine Lewis of Dover among hundreds who attending Monday’s MLK prayer breakfast in Dover.. Special To The Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh

To end his address on a hopeful note, Bishop Jackson shared an anecdote about when he’d first watched a black tennis player, Arthur Ashe, play against Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon Men’s Final in 1975. At the time, a black man had never won that tournament. As Bishop Jackson watched, a friend came over, and pointed out that the game’s outcome was already known, and that he was, in fact, watching a rerun.

“He told me it’s a six hour time difference in England, they already played the Men’s Final and Arthur Ashe won — you’re just watching a rerun,” said Bishop Jackson. “The rerun is going to turn out the same way. My brothers and sisters, all I want to tell you, is what we’re going through right now is a rerun — this one is going to turn out the same way too. God won before, and he’ll win again. We need to keep saying, not that we might, but that we shall overcome. Deep in my heart I believe that we shall overcome.”

The final prayer and singing of the hymn “We Shall Overcome” was performed by Rev. Dr. Wilford Oney, Jr.

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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