Donald Trump launched his “Black Voices for Trump” campaign to win votes for his re-election, on Friday in Atlanta, Georgia, addressing a few hundred supporters in the city considered the cradle of the US civil rights movement.
Atlanta is also the home of the civil rights era activist and Democratic congressman John Lewis, whom Trump once dismissed as “all talk”.
“The Republican party was the original home for African Americans,” Trump told the small gathering, adding: “And now you’re returning.”
Donning “Blacks for Trump” shirts, some wearing giant red Make America Great Again hats, and holding signs telling people to text “Woke” to a certain number to get more information about the campaign, the crowd booed when the president referred to the Democratic party.
However, black voters, who overwhelmingly support Democrats, are an elusive demographic for the 45th US president.
To those gathered at Friday’s event – a number of whom were white – he said he would campaign for every last African American vote in 2020, even though he has spent much of his three years in office antagonizing black politicians.
He has called Baltimore, a predominantly black city and home of the late, prominent congressman Elijah Cummings, a“disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess” and has called Chicago an “embarrassment to the nation” based on gun violence, often related to poverty, in majority black neighborhoods.
And after white nationalists targeted Charlottesville, Virginia, in violent clashes in 2017, and later killed a counter-protester, Trump said there had been good people “on both sides”. He was endorsed by a Ku Klux Klan leader in 2016 and failed to vigorously denounce such support.
Trump has also targeted the congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born US citizen, beaming as crowds at one of his recent rallies chanted “Send her back!”
On Friday, he referenced his words at an August 2016 rally in Michigan, asking the crowd – a mix of attendees from a handful of southern states – at the Georgia World Congress Center: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
Trump spent much of his 2016 campaign denigrating the country’s first African American president, Barack Obama. He had long promoted the lie that Obama wasn’t born in the US.
Echoing remarks from 2016, on Friday he said: “You have the worst schools of anybody in the country by far; it’s not even close.”
And he warned: “Democrats want to invest in green global projects, I want to invest in the black American community.”
He and the vice-president, Mike Pence, cited the administration’s record on creation of economic “opportunity zones”, the low black unemployment rate nationally and the administration’s anti-abortion stance, to loud cheers.
Jamaal Reynolds, 26, had driven from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see Trump in person for a third time. He was quick to denounce those who called the president racist, but said his friends and family, who are mostly Democrats, call him crazy.
He explained: “I was born and raised in the ’hood, in the projects [public housing]. The area was run by Democrats and they forgot about it all the time.”
The Georgia state representative Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr, attended the rally, as did the local politician Katrin Pierson. The Kentucky attorney general-elect, Daniel Cameron, the state’s first African American elected to that position, gave a short speech.
Trump has also made recent overtures to black voters with a visit to a historically black college in South Carolina and a summit for young black conservatives at the White House.
As he was wrapping up in Atlanta, he joked to the crowd: “Sixteen more years!”, to a smattering of laughter in the small room.
Next time, he said to the crowd, they would get a bigger room to accommodate people who were waiting outside, making a favorite reference to crowd sizes despite it being clear that there was sufficient space for anyone who would have wanted access to the venue. After an hour’s speech, rambling at times, he shook dozens of hands as he departed.
“He signed my hat!” a woman squealed to her friend, tipping her Maga hat.