As the world was reminded anew last week, the last living bridge between the 1963 March on Washington and the Washington of today is John Lewis, a civil rights icon since the movement flowered in the early 1960s and Atlanta’s congressman since the late 1980s.
His brief remarks at the march’s 50th anniversary commemoration gained little attention, trumped easily by the symbolic power of having an African-American president offer the keynote at the Lincoln Memorial. But the day brought to mind what Lewis said on those steps half a century before — words reflecting the profound disenfranchisement black people felt then and pointing to how Democrats and Republicans have responded since.
“What political leader here can stand up and say, ‘My party is the party of principles'?" Lewis asked in 1963, noting how reviled promoters of racial oppression, as well as renowned champions of social justice, were prominent in both parties in Congress. “Where is our party? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march on Washington?”
Fifty years on, the sprawling roster of unfinished business and unmet dreams lamented from the podium, and the tens of thousands gathered on the Mall, made clear that Washington isn’t close to salving all the anger and worry that gets people on their feet. But the tableau was an unmistakable reminder that only one party has made common cause with those marchers for most of the decades since.
Not a single elected Republican took to the lectern, though invitations to deliver remarks were extended to at least a half-dozen. Unintended or not, organizers were left with the impression that their causes had once again been disrespected by the GOP high command, which in theory had the organizational savvy, internal communications skills and political wherewithal to deliver at least one member of their party’s A list to the podium.
“That they would turn their backs on this event was telling of them,” NAACP Chairman Emeritus Julian Bond said on MSNBC. “And the fact that they seem to want to get black votes — they’re not going to get them this way.”
Both living GOP former presidents declined to attend for health reasons, George W. Bush recovering from cardiac surgery and his 89-year-old father increasingly frail. The presence of either would likely have altered the partisan narrative altogether, and one of them would have likely been there had doctors permitted it; one of the elder Bush’s favorite bits of advice for succeeding in politics is an echo of the Woody Allen line that 80 percent of success in life comes from “just showing up.”
The scheduling conflict, short notice and “we commemorated elsewhere” rationales offered by the top congressional Republicans, though, all sounded a bit hollow once their actual whereabouts on Aug. 28 became known.
Speaker John A. Boehner was in the middle of a fundraising swing for favored colleagues and had a down day planned in Jackson Hole, Wyo. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor had a meeting with energy industry lobbyists in North Dakota. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was home in Kentucky, securing a crucial endorsement in next year’s GOP primary from conservative leader Mike Huckabee. Sen. John McCain — whose ability to hold a grudge is legendary and who says he’ll “never forgive” Lewis for some harsh rhetoric during the 2008 presidential campaign — stayed put in Arizona.
The absence of all their voices was a big missed opportunity for their party, because each has shown a capacity for impassioned eloquence in expressing Republican aspirations for a colorblind society in which all people have equal opportunities to prosper from an economy that thrives under only a soft touch from Washington.
McConnell has described his understanding of American ideals being shaped by watching the 1963 march while a college intern in the Senate. Cantor, who says he was moved by a civil rights landmarks tour with Lewis this year, has professed a commitment to a bipartisan update of the Voting Rights Act that addresses the Supreme Court’s new constitutional objections.
Either might have drawn strong applause with those messages, and at a minimum the party would have been able to get some rare unfiltered delivery of its message to a nationwide audience online and on TV. Instead, there was no one to rebut the implied sentiment — expressed by several Democrats on the stage, from President Jimmy Carter to Congressional Black Caucus Chairwoman Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio — that the GOP was mainly to blame for so many of the problems that would make Martin Luther King Jr. cringe today, from disproportionately high black unemployment to racial disparities in criminal sentencing and new voter ID laws.
Last fall, African-Americans gave only 6 percent of their votes to Mitt Romney and just 8 percent of their support to GOP congressional candidates. Since the presidential election before the 1963 March on Washington, when 32 percent of blacks voted Republican, the party’s share of the vote has reached into double digits only a couple of times.
The results are reflected clearly in the congressional roster. Nine percent of the House is black, and all 41 are Democrats. And there’s just one African-American senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, a Republican who started a two-year appointment in January — and who was not offered a speaking role last week. Organizers said they invited Scott and others to attend as spectators first, to gauge potential speakers' availability.
Whether oversight or snub, that could fairly be labeled a political miscalculation by those who planned the day. The more consequential lapse of political judgment looks to be the Republicans’ inability to get one of their own to stand, literally if never ideologically, where King once stood.