Obama drew a standing ovation for his remarks. He did not mention Trump by name. The GOP front-runner’s statement has drawn widespread condemnation from lawmakers of both parties and several of his rivals.
He said the country would do a disservice to “warriors of justice” like Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, President Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., if it denies the scars of the “nation’s original sin” are still there today.
“We betray the efforts of the past if we fail to push back against bigotry in all its forms,” Obama said.
After the speech, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama has long promoted the ideas of equal opportunity and rejecting discrimination based on a person’s last name, appearance, sexual orientation or religion, and that his comments Wednesday were not specifically directed at Trump.
“I think it’s appropriate for you to notice the difference in those messages, but I would contest the notion that this is something that the president newly inserted into his remarks to respond to one individual,” Earnest said.
On Tuesday, Earnest lambasted Trump as a “carnival barker” and called on his rivals to denounce their fellow candidate.
At the ceremony, lawmakers celebrated the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified on Dec. 6, 1865 following approval in 27 states. House and Senate leaders read historical accounts of what happened in Congress and in the states leading up to ratification.
“When we read those 43 short and simple words, we should remember these men and what they did,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said of the amendment. “We should realize those words, like their acts, were gallant, noble and profound.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the values exemplified by Tubman “are a guiding light” in fights for higher wages, better education and criminal justice reform.
“Every day we must work together to raise our nation from the depths of its darkest chapters to higher expressions of our values,” Reid said.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Hennessey and Darlene Superville contributed to this report.
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