Celebrating Civil Rights, Boehner-Style

Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner greet John Lewis. (Getty Images)
Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner greet John Lewis. (Getty Images)

(The Root) — It's fair to say Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) is not the first (or 10th, or 100th) person one might expect to hear from at an event celebrating a major civil rights event. After all, during the 111th Congress, when he was last ranked by the NAACP before he became Speaker of the House, the organization gave him a 10% rating on it's legislative report card —  that's the equivalent of an F.


Plus, while civil rights activists call the recent Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder a "devastating blow for civil rights," Boehner doesn't seem particularly pressed to create new standards to reinvigorate the Voting Rights Act's protections.

So it's no surprise that, at a congressional ceremony Wednesday observing the 50th anniversary of one of the landmark civil rights events of the century — the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom — Boehner made an awkward show of delivering the praise for the march that the event demanded, while entirely avoiding acknowledgment of its specific goals or the obvious links to modern policy issues.

Here are the components of the ceremony that made sense: A video presentation featuring sights and sounds from the march, in which more than 200,000 demonstrators converged on Washington, D.C., and where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech; Grammy Award-winning soprano Jessye Norman singing the spiritual "He's Got the Whole World in His Hand," which Marian Anderson performed at the event in 1963; and members of Congress connecting the issues addressed by the march and connecting them to those that are relevant today, most notably voting rights.

Here's where it was weird: While Boehner had nothing but compliments for those who organized the event, saying that he wanted to start by "acknowledging the debt we owe to all those men and women" and encouraging the crowd to "start by thanking John Lewis," it was never clear exactly for what, and when exactly he stopped thinking the battle for civil rights was a good thing.

"It was a day for the ages," he said. OK, no one would really disagree with that. He lauded "chapters of struggle by ordinary Americans committed to the promise that all men are created equal." Oh, interesting. That sounds good. But equal in what ways? How does that play out in terms of policy?


The march, of course, was credited for provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 that reflected its demands. On those topics, other speakers said what Boehner wouldn't — and, really, couldn't say with a straight face. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reflected on the "ongoing struggle" for equality, telling the assembled civil rights leaders that freedoms protected by the Voting Rights Act are still under siege. On that topic, he called for a "new generation of activists" to remember that "freedom must be tended for it to grow."


House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) cited several examples, including African-American representation in Congress, which convinced her that "not enough progress" had been made since the march.

Rep. John Lewis himself (D-Ga.), an architect of the march and its last living speaker, delivered closing remarks linking the causes that inspired the event to current legislative battles. "We've come a distance since that day, but many of the issues that gave rise to the march are still pressing issues in our society today," he said. And he got specific, with a list that included hunger and voting rights. "We've come a great distance, but we are not finished yet," he concluded.


For his part, Boehner wrapped up a characterization of the march as "a story with room enough to press for some cause — some dream — bigger than ourselves." And his comments left plenty of room for the gap between his dream and the dreams of civil rights advocates, past and present.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to replace a reference to a 2002 report card from the ACLU with a more recent civil rights report card by the NAACP.


Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.