On Friday evening, Rep. John Lewis went on NBC's Meet the Press to discuss President-elect Donald Trump.
"I don't see this president-elect as a legitimate president," the 76-year-old civil rights icon told host Chuck Todd. "I think there was a conspiracy on the part of the Russians and others that helped him get elected. That's not right. That's not fair. That's not the open, democratic process."
Lewis' comments came amid news that a growing number of Democratic lawmakers would not attend Trump's inauguration in protest of his bigotry. The notoriously thin-skinned Trump responded by lashing out at Lewis on Twitter.
Trump's outburst preceded a slew of similar attacks from the president-elect's surrogates and allies. Conservative filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza dismissed Lewis as a "bitter has-been" and a "minor player" in the civil rights movement.
Actor Rob Schneider, also a Republican, unfavorably compared Lewis to Martin Luther King Jr., claiming King "won civil rights" by refusing to "give in to his anger or his hurt."
Republican Paul LePage, governor of Maine, said Lewis should "thank" the GOP because Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, freed the slaves.
The speed with which Trump and his supporters rushed to attack Lewis and minimize his achievements highlights the tenuousness of the congressman's status as a civil-rights icon. The point could hardly be more glaring than on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when conservative figures join other Americans in lionizing King and his contemporaries, like Lewis and Rosa Parks. On Monday, Speaker Paul Ryan called King a "great American" who believed deeply in our "common humanity." Even Trump joined the chorus and tweeted: "Celebrate Martin Luther King Day and all of the many wonderful things that he stood for."
But the reverence with which these figures are treated is often contingent on how useful they are in upholding the myth that racism is no longer a problem. Republicans have long been committed to the idea that racism is dead and the civil rights movement killed it — in 2013, the Republican National Committee even publicly thanked Parks for "ending racism." When figures like Lewis openly oppose the Republican agenda, however, that praise can turn quickly to vitriol and smear campaigns.
From the moment that Lewis demonstrated he was more politically dangerous than useful to the right, his civil rights bona fides were suddenly up for debate. The about-face was stark, if unsurprising. Just last week, a photograph of Lewis with Sen. Jeff Sessions in Selma, Alabama, was circulated as "proof" that Sessions is not a racist and is committed to black civil rights.
Regardless, it's hard to ignore the incongruity between this praise for King and what the GOP actually stands for. More often than not, Republicans invoke King and his contemporaries as superficial demonstrations of their commitment to racial equality. Then, they turn around and support policies that have the opposite effect, including curtailing voting rights, sparring with black civil rights protesters and opposing greater accountability among police.
While King and Lewis fought tooth and nail to win equal voting rights for black Americans, Republicans have spent years rolling back laws that protected these rights in states across the South and Midwest. Nonviolent civil disobedience was, similarly, a hallmark of King's work — yet conservatives have routinely attacked nonviolent protest movements like Black Lives Matter as "terrorist groups."
In case after case, Republicans have stood in diametric opposition to King's causes. And it's no stretch to suggest the reverend would have choice words for many of these same right-leaning figures who sing his praises today. The problem is, we’ll never know for certain. He was assassinated in 1968. The reason why his legacy is invoked so easily by these figures now is he's not around to expose them when they distort what he stood for.
But Lewis is alive and kicking. As his recent spat with Trump suggests, the congressman's opposition to the right's agenda may cost him the esteem they'd typically afford a civil rights icon of his stature. But it's a price he's surely willing to pay. And it's the same dilemma King would face if he were alive today.