UPDATED: Hours after this piece was posted, CNN reported that House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was headed to Selma.
Symbolism matters in politics, and actions speak louder than words. This is why I find myself both shocked and angered that none of the GOP elected leadership plans to travel to Selma, Alabama to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a civil rights march that forever changed the United States.
This historic event revealed to the world the cruelty and inhumanity of Jim Crow and segregation in the South. Brave men and women such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis were savagely beaten as they nobly marched on the Edmund Pettus Bridge to break free of the oppression and hatred that had relegated blacks in the South to second-class citizenship from the days of slavery.
While blood and tears were shed that day 50 years ago in the nonviolent fight for equality, Americans watched in horror. Yet slowly but surely we turned the tide against the injustice against blacks that many had ignored for so long. Which brings us to my present ire.
The Grand Old Party has long championed itself as the Party of Lincoln—the emancipators of slaves. And yet, President Obama and scores of lawmakers from all sides of the political spectrum will wind their way to tiny Selma to reflect, remember, and honor the sacrifices of those who paved the way for me and subsequent generations to live freely regardless of the color of my skin.
In recent years, the GOP has sought to change the image of the party as being either indifferent or insensitive to the needs of people of color. Last year voters in Utah and Texas sent new Representatives Mia Love (R-UT) and Will Hurd (R-TX) to Congress from districts that were not African-American majorities. A promising start to be sure. South Carolina also returned Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) to office from a state whose roots in the Old Confederacy remained strong well into the 20th Century.
As Republican Party Chair Reince Priebus and other elected officials across the country try to make the case that the GOP welcomes people of color with open arms, the decision not to have senior party leadership during the three-day celebration in Selma offends me.
Somehow, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-LA) are too busy with other plans than to commemorate the bravery of those who helped remake American society. The same may be said for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-TX). Are they too busy on the golf course, raising money, or otherwise content to sit on the couch to head to Selma?
Many members of Congress are apparently scratching their heads at this insensitive slight. In Politico on Thursday, Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus offered the following: “The Republicans always talk about trying to change their brand and be more appealing to minority folks and be in touch with the interests of African Americans. This is very disappointing.”
“Disappointing” isn’t nearly the half of it, sir.
There is a time for politics and there is a time for national unity. There is a time for ideological purity and there is a time for historic reflection. This is a time and an event that we all need to stand together as Americans and honor the bravery, sacrifice, and commitment to equality of those of marched for freedom while heeding Dr. King’s call to not drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred in the midst of so much racial animosity.
I’m not one to often quote President Obama but I will do so in this case. The following advice I am about to offer doesn’t come easy as I know and admire many of the Republican leaders I’ve identified above. But to quote our 44th President, “Let me be clear”: the Republican leadership needs to get off their ass and get down to Selma to do the right thing for the millions of constituents they represent. Period. Full Stop.