Written by Ted Ownby
Hearing that Donald Trump is returning to Mississippi to campaign for Cindy Hyde-Smith raises all sorts of intriguing issues about the senate race and contemporary politics. But for me, a Trump visit raises one specific question: did Donald Trump quote my words on an earlier trip to the state?
In December 2017, there was lots of controversy about whether president’s visit to the opening of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum insulted or otherwise undermined the stories the new museums were telling. I wrote a short piece about the visit, called “Could Donald Trump Learn from Southern History?” and on December 6, a colleague posted it on the blog of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture. In my role as director of the Center, it is my job to think about educational sides of public events. So, that piece said that whatever the politics of the visit, maybe a president known for his non-scholarly tendencies could pause and learn something from his museum visit.
When I read and the listened to the remarks the president made on December 9 at the opening of the museums, I was struck by one phrase. Reading prepared remarks, Trump said, “Among those we honor are the Christian pastors who started the Civil Rights movement in their own churches preaching, like Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. — a man that we have studied and watched, and admired for my entire life — that we’re all made in the image of our Lord.”
Wait. Donald Trump said that he had “studied” Martin Luther King, Jr. for his entire life? Had someone writing his remarks read my blog post? On December 6, I had written the following:
In many ways we could say Donald Trump simply needs to study more, not specifically to study the history of the American South. But people studying the South have worked so hard trying to understand the perspectives of all people that the topic seems especially helpful. One clear example: scholars of the South frequently assign Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” When some white religious leaders said that the disorder of civil rights protests was intensifying divisiveness, King made the distinction between keeping the peace and working for justice. The people who suggested that all trouble-makers were only making trouble, King argued, were ignoring the crucial possibility of progress that came from working for justice. Reading King’s letter and touring the museums in Jackson give Donald Trump a chance to study southern history in serious and thoughtful ways.
Maybe it was just a coincidence that Trump and I both mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr., and maybe it was a coincidence that he and I specifically mentioned studying King. Of course, the memory of Martin Luther King is open for anyone to interpret, and of course no one owns the word “studying.” But it seems an awfully specific coincidence that he said he had been studying Martin Luther King—the only non-Mississippian mentioned in his remarks. I wonder if maybe a speechwriter had done an internet search, seen my article on the CSSC blog, and inserted a sentence to argue against the suggestion that the president needs to study more.
It doesn’t really matter if a speechwriter for Donald Trump might have quoted my words in order to disagree with them. In truth, though, I’ll admit that it is intriguing to think that a U.S. president, even the current president, might have used my words. It’s also intriguing to imagine that presidential speechwriters might be reading blog posts on the Center for the Study of Southern Culture website. We’ll likely never know, and that’s fine. On the other hand, if we hear that the president, on his most recent visit, was quoting from The Mississippi Encyclopedia, advertising brown bag presentations, and praising the success of the Center’s new MFA program, we’ll know for sure.
University of Mississippi