President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump hosted a reception at the White House on Tuesday honoring Black History Month.
“Our thoughts turn to the heroes of the civil rights movement whose courage and sacrifices have really totally inspired us all,” Trump said at the event. “From the pews to the picket lines, African-American civil rights champions have brought out the best in us.”
Trump was joined at the event by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and Surgeon General Jerome Adams, the only two senior Trump administration officials who are black.
“Long before our nation righted the wrongs of slavery and segregation, African-Americans gave their hearts, their sweat, their blood and their very lives to defend the United States, its flag and its highest ideal,” the President told guests in the State Room.
Trump specifically acknowledged Army Sgt. William Carney, who was the first African-American Medal of Honor recipient. Carney protected the American flag in battle during the Civil War.
“Sgt. Carney saw the color guard of his unit fall,” Trump said recalling the story. “He threw down his rifle, raced to grab the flag and carry it forward, planting it on the walls of the fort, where he held off gunfire and, enduring multiple wounds, he continued to guard that great American flag throughout the entire battle.”
The President added with a smile: “He later remarked to his comrades that the old flag never touched the ground.”
The reception comes on the heels of Trump’s first year as president, during which he has repeatedly stoked racial tensions and drawn stiff rebukes from the African-American community for his reaction to racial issues in America. Just a month ago, Trump faced accusations of racism after he referred to African nations as “shithole countries” in a private meeting with lawmakers.
The comments, which came in the context of immigration, were just the latest instance when Trump has drawn widespread rebuke over remarks that were racially charged.
Most notably, Trump faced widespread condemnation after he refused to unequivocally condemn white supremacists for the violence their rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, sparked. Instead, Trump asserted that there was “blame on both sides” and suggested that not all of the torch-bearing individuals who marched while shouting racist chants were white supremacists.
“I think there is blame on both sides,” Trump said then. “You had a group on one side that was bad. You had a group on the other side that was also very violent. Nobody wants to say that. I’ll say it right now.”
Critics also alleged that Trump’s heavy-handed criticism of NFL players who knelt in protest during the National Anthem was racially charged.
Trump has sought to reach out to the black community – both during his campaign and during his time in the White House. But his efforts have often been overshadowed by his role in exposing and exploiting racial fissures in America.
When Trump attended the opening of the Mississippi Civil Rights museum in December, two prominent black congressmen said they would not attend because Trump’s “hurtful policies are an insult to the people portrayed in this civil rights museum.”
Trump did not address the criticism he has faced for stoking racial tensions in the country during the event Tuesday.
Instead, the President focused on sweeping statements about equality and freedom for all Americans.
He also took the opportunity to once again tout the unemployment rate for African-Americans, which has reached a record low under his presidency. The black unemployment rate has been declining for years, prior to Trump becoming President – but he took credit on Tuesday.
“We had the lowest African-American unemployment rate in the history of the country,” Trump said. “We are very, very proud of that.”
CNN’s Allie Malloy contributed to this report.