Sen. Rand Paul’s charm offensive to minority communities took him to Howard University on Wednesday, where the historically black school’s students met him with skepticism and the occasional jeer.
The Kentucky Republican’s political forays since the 2012 elections have fueled his recent rise to conservative rockstardom, from his foreign policy appeal to neoconservatives at The Heritage Foundation in February to a well-received speech at last month’s Conservative Political Action Conference.
But Howard is not CPAC, and both Paul and the audience appeared highly conscious Wednesday of the ideological and racial gap between the two venues.
As Paul suggested that Republicans, more so than Democrats, have historically been on the side of equality for blacks, two Howard students bounded to the front of the room and hoisted a white tarp with the words “Howard University does not support white supremacy” painted on it. They were immediately seized by campus police and dragged into a scuffle off to the side.
“For him to come to [historically black colleges and universities] and ... try to tell them about their own history, my history, I think it’s ridiculous,” said Brian Menifee, a senior mechanical engineering major who held the sign on behalf of the liberal campus group Political Education Action Committee.
During his speech, Paul reiterated his view that segregation is a stain on the country’s history. He also repeatedly said he never opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — an acknowledgement of the controversy he faced in 2010, when he questioned Title II of the act, which prohibits private businesses from discriminating against customers based on race.
“I don’t like the idea of telling private business owners — I abhor racism, I think it’s a bad business idea to ever exclude anybody from your restaurant, but at the same time, I do believe in private ownership. But I think there should be absolutely no discrimination in anything that gets any public funding, and that’s mostly what the Civil Rights Act was about,” he told the Louisville Courier-Journal after winning the 2010 Republican Senate nomination in Kentucky.
“I never opposed the Civil Rights Act. Ever,” Paul said Wednesday.
Just as he quoted George F. Kennan at The Heritage Foundation and Pablo Neruda before the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Paul compared his message at Howard to the words of literary and political giants relevant to his audience’s history.
He recalled Howard graduate Toni Morrison’s advice to write the book one wants to read and said, “I want a government that leaves you alone, that encourages you to write the book that becomes your future.”
The auditorium, which campus police said seats around 250 people, was full for Paul’s speech, and some listeners stood against the wall.
Though not everyone was as outspoken as Menifee, others in the audience expressed skepticism about Paul’s olive branch.
Before the speech, Vanessa A. Knox, a political science and biology double major at Howard weighed in on Paul’s visit. “My expectations really aren’t that high, but I believe in hearing out the other side,” she said.
“It wasn’t the best speech. It was pretty much what I expect from any politician in general,” television and production major Michael Lindsey said. Lindsey wasn’t swayed by Paul’s appeals, but he acknowledged that he is a Democrat.
Beyond civil rights issues, Paul had more success. During the question-and-answer session, the audience offered full applause when Paul said he would do everything he could to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of jail.
Paul’s public acknowledgements that he is mulling a 2016 bid for the presidency also brought out other local activists.
Four activists from Young Americans for Liberty, a national student-focused libertarian group, wore stickers that read “I Stand with Rand” and carried an email sign-up sheet for the organization’s newsletter.
Five protesters from the local DC Vote organization held signs outside the building that portrayed a Gadsden flag with Paul’s head spliced over that of the flag’s iconic snake.