In recognition of Black History Month, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and Co-Chair Sharon Day have released a statement in which Priebus says that “as we reflect on the generations of African Americans who contributed immensely to the fabric of our country and to the Republican Party, let us honor their legacy not just by what we say, but also in what we do.”
Yet last week, GOP members of the Senate Judiciary Committee called Catherine Engelbrecht to testify as the panel met to consider the nomination of Loretta Lynch. Lynch will become the first female African-American attorney general, and head of the Department of Justice, if she passes the panel’s gauntlet and is confirmed.
Engelbrecht is a founder of True the Vote, a Texas-based group that has said it wants to make the experience of voting like “driving and seeing the police following you.” The group sends poll watchers to voting places where it suspects “irregularities” and has been warned about tactics that resemble intimidation of minority voters in the bad old days before the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed discrimination at the ballot box. Republicans presented Engelbrecht as a critic of President Barack Obama and current Attorney General Eric Holder.
With Engelbrecht in its corner, the Republican Party seemed to endorse her group’s activities and her testimony about being targeted by the “trickle-down tyranny” that she said was “enforced by the Department of Justice.” In doing so, the GOP was, in effect, reinforcing its support for the wave of laws in states throughout the country—initiated by Republican-controlled state legislatures after the Supreme Court invalidated key portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013—that put in place rules limiting acceptable forms of ID and setting up other restrictions.
And in a fight over voting rules that pits those who believe that these new laws disenfranchise minorities against others who insist that they protect the integrity of the vote, Engelbrecht and the Republicans have made it clear where they stand: opposed to current Justice Department efforts to fight these new laws in states such as North Carolina and Texas.
But if, as Republicans claim, they truly wish to win the support of minority voters, they won’t do it by backing rhetoric, from Engelbrecht or anyone else, that echoes a time when literacy tests and hostile clerks blocked the ballot for black voters, and armed police officers were not figments of a wary citizen’s imagination but very real obstacles waiting for those who crossed the line. It wasn’t that long ago—consider the history in the film Selma and the story of John Lewis, a hero of the civil rights movement who sits in Congress today.
Lynch has roots in that movement. Her parents fought for civil rights in their North Carolina home, and as her mother, Lorine Lynch, a school librarian, explained to the Washington Post, “I told Loretta that I picked cotton so she wouldn’t have to do the same thing.”
No doubt, Lynch will gain the support of some Republicans on the Senate committee, who see in her an embodiment of the values their party preaches. But you would think that the spectacle of the hearings would give pause to a party that says it want to expand its base in advance of the 2016 presidential election. A back-and-forth, though, between Lynch and the new Republican senator from her home state of North Carolina, Thom Tillis, was strained, and not unforeseeable, since he was a driving force behind sweeping voter restrictions implemented when he was that state’s House speaker.
It was just the latest awkward moment in a running drama—like the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights being renamed the Subcommittee on the Constitution, dropping “civil rights” and “human rights.”
Of course, that’s the prerogative of subcommittee Chair Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), whose spokeswoman said, “We changed the name because the Constitution covers our most basic rights, including civil and human rights.” But it’s symbolically tone-deaf.
Republican leaders have also strongly defended their No. 3 House leader, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who recently apologized for his speech before a white supremacist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke—who’s now threatening to run against him.
As proof of its big tent, the Republican Party spotlights black Republicans such as Rep. Mia Love of Utah, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and presidential hopeful Ben Carson. But that becomes a form of “Some of my best friends are … ” when the party’s other actions put a chill on welcoming diversity.
Last week in Rock Hill, S.C., the Friendship Nine, arrested 54 years ago for a lunch counter sit-in, had their convictions vacated. Back then it was primarily Democratic politicians who controlled the South and enforced racist rules—both written and unwritten. That changed dramatically after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, spurred by pressure from nonviolent activists such as the Nine, signed civil rights legislation.
Republicans, in trying to win black voters today, recall the bipartisan cooperation that passed those bills. “The rich history of African Americans and the Republican Party is well-documented from the earliest days of our party,” said RNC Co-Chair Day at the beginning of a month that will see the celebration of many pioneers. But as Franklin McCain—one of the students who staged the historic Feb. 1, 1960, sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, N.C.—said a year ago with regard to voting restrictions and other contemporary Republican initiatives, “It irritates me that things that we thought we solved 40, 50 years ago have raised their ugly heads again.”
Said Day: “As we honor black history this month, let us continue to build bridges with all communities—today and in the future.” But if the Republican Party hopes to hang on to the “party of Lincoln” label, it has a lot of work to do.
Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.