JAMESTOWN, Va. (AP) — President Donald Trump marked the 400th anniversary of the rise of American democracy on Tuesday by celebrating “four incredible centuries of history, heritage and commitment to the righteous cause of American self-government.” His speech in historic Jamestown played out against a backdrop of tension over his recent disparaging remarks about minority members of Congress and was boycotted by black Virginia state legislators.
In his remarks, Trump noted that 1619 also was the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the colonies, saying, “We remember every sacred soul who suffered the horrors of slavery and the anguish of bondage.”
Trump said that the United States has had many achievements in its history, but “none exceeds the triumph that we are here to celebrate today.”
“Self-government in Virginia did not just give us a state we love — in a very true sense it gave us the country we love, the United States of America,” he said.
His speech was interrupted by a protester who stood up and held signs that read “deport hate” and “reunite my family.” A third message said “go back to your corrupted home.” The protester, Ibraheem Samirah, a Democratic member of the Virginia House, was led out of the speech site as some members of the crowd chanted “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
Samirah said in a statement that he was confident his constituents would rather him protest than “passively accept” Trump’s presence. Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox called the protest “inconsistent with common decency and a violation of the rules of the House.”
Ahead of his speech, Trump said the black legislators who announced a boycott of the event were going “against their own people.”
Trump claimed African Americans “love the job” he’s doing and are “happy as hell” with his recent comments criticizing a majority black district in the Baltimore area and its congressman.
In fact, African Americans continue to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessments of the president’s performance. According to Gallup polling, approval among black Americans has hovered around 1 in 10 over the course of Trump’s presidency, with 8% approving in June.
A last-minute announcement that the president would participate in the Jamestown commemoration of the first representative assembly in the Western Hemisphere injected tension into an event years in the making. Demonstrators gathered Tuesday morning near the site where Trump was to speak.
“The commemoration of the birth of this nation and its democracy will be tarnished unduly with the participation of the President, who continues to make degrading comments toward minority leaders, promulgate policies that harm marginalized communities, and use racist and xenophobic rhetoric,” the black caucus said in a statement Monday.
The boycott follows Trump’s weekend comments referring to U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings’ majority black Baltimore-area district as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.” A caucus statement didn’t specifically mention Cummings but said Trump’s “repeated attacks on Black legislators and comments about Black communities makes him ill-suited to honor and commemorate such a monumental period in history.”
Black Caucus chairman Del. Lamont Bagby told The Associated Press that the group reached a unanimous decision to boycott the event more than a week ago but that the president has “continued his attacks” since then, including with his remarks about Cummings’ district.
On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted: “Heading to Jamestown, Virginia. Word is the Democrats will make it as uncomfortable as possible, but that’s ok because today is not about them!”
Trump used the speech to make an optimistic case for America’s future, saying “America always gets the job done.”
“That is why after 400 years of glorious American democracy, we have returned here to this place to declare to all the world that the United States of America and the great Commonwealth of Virginia are just getting started,” he said.
Caucus members also pledged to boycott the rest of a weeklong series of anniversary events and have instead planned alternative commemorations Tuesday in Richmond, Virginia’s capital.
At an early-morning ceremony, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also used the event to reach out to African Americans. He noted that while the ideals of freedom and representative government flourished in Jamestown four centuries ago, a ship carrying African people who would be sold into slavery arrived in Virginia just weeks after that first assembly.
“So today, as we hold these commemorations of the first representative assembly in the free world, we have to remember who it included, and who it did not,” Northam said. “That’s the paradox of Virginia, of America, and of our representative democracy.”
Today’s Virginia General Assembly, considered the oldest continuously operating legislative body in North America, grew out of the assembly that first gathered in 1619.
The anniversary comes at a time of heightened election-year partisanship in Virginia in the aftermath of political scandals that engulfed the state’s top three elected officials, all Democrats.
A blackface photo scandal nearly destroyed Northam’s career. Then, as it looked like Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax might ascend to the governorship, two women accused him of sexual assault. Fairfax, who attended Tuesday’s event where Trump spoke, has vehemently denied those allegations. Attorney General Mark Herring has separately faced calls to resign after acknowledging he dressed in blackface decades ago. All three men remain in office.
AP writer Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.