Dana Milbank
Opinion writer August 26, 2013

Now it can be told: All the prominent black Republicans in America really can fit into one room.

In fairness, it was a pretty big room.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

Republicans, who got just 6 percent of the African American vote in 2012, saw this week’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s March on Washington passing them by. So they held their own commemoration. They sent an invitation “far and wide,” as one party official put it, asking black conservatives to lunch at party headquarters. About 150 accepted the invitation for chicken, cheesecake and cheeky suggestions that the late civil rights leader would have supported the causes of today’s conservatives.

Unfortunately, the Party of Lincoln discovered that its technical capability was still rather 19th century. The wireless sound system failed, and the microphone picked up only every few words. The national anthem became: “O’er the rampar . . . ah . . . ah . . . nn . . . oof . . . nigh . . . that . . . ill . . . of the . . . ay.” The hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” came out, in part, like this: “Skies . . . ow . . . ow . . . ing see . . . aw . . . ah . . . sing a song . . . rah . . . nah.” Its final verse went something like, “Lest our hearts . . . drunk . . . vil . . . eh . . . ub . . . eh . . . eeh . . . shadow . . . meeeeee.”

As the speakers fired staccato fragments of the speeches at the participants, techs scurried to repair the system, an RNC official sighed and the droning of a power drill on a nearby floor added to the mayhem.

“You know, Republicans can’t turn on a microphone,” quipped Ada Fisher, RNC committeewoman from North Carolina, when she came onstage to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

After a pause, the audio troubles were fixed for the rest of the event. But there remained a good deal of static in the message that came out over the next two hours. Those speaking to the group agreed on the desirability of appropriating King and the anniversary, but they proposed different and contradictory ways.

Alveda King, niece of the great man and champion of conservative causes, sang “Oh, Freedom” but gave the old spiritual evangelical lyrics:

“Oh, freedom, oh, freedom/Oh, freedom over me/I no longer am a slave/Christ is risen from the grave/Christ is Lord, I am saved and I’m free.”

She said, “For me, it’s not as much anymore about politics and affiliations,” adding, “I am a Republican and I’m glad to be a Republican.”

Robert Brown, who worked in the Nixon White House, suggested that Martin Luther King’s spirit might inform leaders in Congress and the White House that “this nation was built on compromise and if we don’t get it all together, we’re going to sink this ship and we can’t afford to do that.” This received scattered applause.

A similar response greeted Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who criticized the Supreme Court decision that invalidated part of the Voting Rights Act and vowed to repair the law so that it is “impervious to another challenge that will be filed by the usual suspects. I’m with you on that.” The light applause suggested that most of those in attendance were not with him.

Ann Telnaes animation: As the anniversary of the March on Washington approaches, states roll back voting rights. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

But Bob Woodson, a conservative activist, got a standing ovation after he said “We should not wait for evil to wear a white face before we get outraged” and urged his listeners to condemn “corrupt” black politicians. “I think if Dr. King were alive today, he would step on some of these sacred issues.”

It’s anybody’s guess what King would do, but it seems a bit of a stretch to think he would do what T.W. Shannon, speaker of the Oklahoma House, told the audience.

“The key to fulfilling the dream” of King’s, he said, included “quality education for all our children whether in public or private schools,” a “limited government” and curbing a “ferocious appetite for bigger government.” The dream, he went on, must be protected from “contaminants of government dependence, class warfare, socialism and any other pollutant that would muzzle the ring of freedom.”

Shannon proceeded to cite the case of an Alaska woman who beat a moose with a shovel to save her husband — evidence, he said, of “the raw heroic nature of our nation.”

RNC officials who spoke took no position on the moose, and they were less creative in attempting to turn King into a conservative Republican. Sharon Day, RNC co-chairman, noted that it was a Republican Congress that passed the women’s suffrage amendment — in 1919. Reince Priebus, RNC chairman, made the requisite references to the party’s birth and the Great Emancipator.

“We’ve lost the history of this party because we don’t tell it,” he said, “but we’re going to.”

Just as soon as he can get the microphone working.

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