Republicans Shouldn’t Be Afraid To Go To Selma

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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More than one hundred members of Congress went to Selma, Ala. Saturday for the 50th anniversary of an historic civil rights march that began at Edmund Pettus Bridge. Most of the headlines focused on who wasn’t there.

“[T]their ranks don’t include a single member of House Republican leadership,” Politico reported Thursday. “Top Republican leaders on Capitol Hill won’t join the largest bipartisan congressional delegation ever in Selma,” echoed CNN.

“Few Republicans, no leaders head to Selma,” was the original MSNBC headline.

“It’s hard to overstate what a dumb decision this is for a party desperate to show that it is comprised of and open to far more people than just old white men,” wrote Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post Friday. “We do dumb real well,” concurred former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, the first African American to hold that post.

“Hey Republican leadership, get your ass down there,” said Joe Scarborough, a former Florida Republican congressman.

As it happened, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy did in fact go Selma. The event was cosponsored by South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott and Alabama Republican Rep. Martha Roby.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Preibus and Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions were on hand.

President George W. Bush and his wife also came. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a likely 2016 presidential candidate, emphasized his support.

Republicans often stay away from similar events because they feel they’re damned if they do, damned if they don’t. They won’t get many votes from going and they’ll be called racist either way.

President Bush was attacked from the pulpit at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. Both he and his father were on hand to eulogize Mrs. King.

One civil rights leader refused to participate in a commemorative march in Selma Saturday because was Bush there(RELATED: MLK Lieutenant Refuses To March With George W. Bush At Selma Event) 

Tim Scott wasn’t invited to speak at the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech, even though the Republican was the only black senator at the time.

After Rand Paul gave his interview about the Selma commemoration, Democrats responded with criticism. “If Republicans truly believe that the right to vote is sacred, rolling back early voting, ending same-day registration, and building up voter ID barriers is a strange way of showing it,” said a Democratic National Committee email.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise was urged to attend to atone for his speaking to some racists in Louisiana over a decade ago. If he did go, some would say his talk to David Duke supporters made it inappropriate for him to be there.

The message to Republicans is clear. If you don’t go to Selma, it’s because you are racist. If you do go, you don’t belong there because you’re racist.

Sometimes the critics don’t have the best grasp of history. “Fifty years ago, Republican Barry Goldwater opposed the Voting Rights Act and black voters abandoned the party en masse,” writes MSNBC’s Jane C. Timms.

Barry Goldwater wasn’t in the Senate when the Voting Rights Act passed. What Timms is referring to is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which passed before that year’s presidential election. Goldwater’s vote did help the Republican share of the black vote plummet from Richard Nixon’s 32 percent in 1960 to just 6 percent in 1964.

Gerald Ford, a Republican who actually did serve as president, voted for both the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. So did Bob Dole. A higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for both laws.

The last two extensions of the Voting Rights Act were signed into law by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

Liberals find this history tiresome because they think shouldn’t be held responsible for the Southern racists who were once in the Democratic Party but are now, in their view, safety nestled in the GOP.

But if the achievements of Richard Nixon, who desegregated a higher percentage of Southern schools than LBJ, and Reagan are discredited by the Southern strategy, liberals should at least be sporting enough to recognize the role Jim Crow Democrats played in the New Deal coalition.

Republicans have a better history on civil rights than liberals give them credit for. They should reclaim it rather than let Democrats take it away.

Conservatives have a reclamation project of their own. The concepts of limited government and state sovereignty were employed in defense of racism for much of American history. Our political inheritance from the Founding Fathers is worth conserving, but it is not without the stain of slavery and discrimination.

Thus conservatives should be willing to show how the racist misapplication of these principles was a historical aberration, in a time when relief from overweening government could help many black Americans find justice.

Republicans must be willing to go to Selma.

If you will be damned if you do or don’t, then you might as well do the right thing.

W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.