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Fifty years after King's death, U.S. civil rights leaders lament Trump's rise

By Kia Johnson

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Reuters) - A half century after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. civil rights leaders say they are fearful President Donald Trump could reverse progress made on civil rights in the United States since King's death.

The racism that King's leadership helped subdue has returned, said E. Lynn Brown, a former associate of King's who is bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church near Memphis, Tennessee, pointing to a resurgence of white supremacists since Trump launched his campaign for president.

"They were afraid to show their ugly heads in a prominent way. Now, Trump has given them a voice and created a climate where they are not afraid to show their ugly heads," Brown said.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

King died of an assassin's bullet in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, ending his leadership of a nonviolent campaign for equal rights for African-Americans. His death shook the United States in a year that would also bring race riots, violent anti-war demonstrations and the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy.

To be sure, Trump praised King in glowing terms upon the celebration of King's birthday in January, and the president has pointed to historically low unemployment for African-Americans as evidence that blacks are benefiting from his presidency.

Black leaders were proud to have Barack Obama as president and some have lamented that Trump succeeded him.

The maverick Republican has drawn criticism for praising pro-Confederate demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August as "some very fine people." He has also picked Twitter fights with black athletes and appointed few minorities to high office.

Some conservative African-Americans have seen the critique of Trump as unfair, saying white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan existed while Obama was president.

"We have to be very careful at pointing fingers at the White House when in fact racial progress happens at our house," said U.S. Senator Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina.

Even so, Scott criticized Trump for his comments after Charlottesville as unhelpful but said the history of race relations was unrelated to the occupant of the White House.

"We're too quick to say that someone is racist if we don't hear in their words what we want to hear," said Ward Connerly, a conservative African-American who has long fought against racial preferences for minorities. "There are many things I think you can say about Trump, but I don't think that he's a racist."

Still, some civil rights leaders have not forgiven Trump for his reaction to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, in which white nationalists demonstrated to preserve pro-slavery monuments and neo-Nazis chanted anti-Semitic slogans.

After a white nationalist killed a counter-demonstrator when he drove his car into a crowd, Trump said there was blame "on many sides."

"When I heard Mr. Trump say there were good people, some good people on both sides, and saw the violence in Charlottesville, it made me cry. I really cried," said U.S. Representative John Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia who endured life-threatening injuries as a civil rights leader in the 1960s.

"But it also made me more determined to do all I could to help our country move forward," Lewis said.

(Reporting by Kia Johnson; Additional reporting by Kevin Fogarty and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Frank McGurty and Chris Reese)