But aides to some GOP congressional leaders said they received formal invitations only in recent weeks, making it too late to alter their summer recess schedules.
The Rev. Leah D. Daughtry of the House of the Lord Church in the District, who served as executive producer of the commemoration, said the organizing committee began sending invitations to top leaders of both parties “on a rolling basis probably four or five weeks ago.”
“We had a very concerted effort, because this is not a political moment. This was about us coming together as a community, so we wanted to be sure that we had all political representations,” Daughtry said. “We attempted very vigorously to have someone from the GOP participate and unfortunately they were unable to find someone who was able to participate.”
King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, said Wednesday that he was disappointed “that we didn’t have bipartisanship.” He noted that his mother, Coretta Scott King, had maintained relationships with all the living former presidents. “It would have been great” to see, King said, “that around the banner of Martin Luther King everyone could come together, because Dad represented the interest of all who were mistreated.”
Health reasons kept former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush from the event, family representatives said. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush also declined an invitation, Daughtry said.
George W. Bush, who is recovering from a recent heart procedure, issued a statement hailing President Obama’s appearance near the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “There on the National Mall our President, whose story reflects the promise of America, will help us honor the man who inspired millions to redeem that promise,” Bush said.
The absence of any top Republicans came two weeks after national GOP leaders used their annual summer meeting to begin a program to attract minority voters by highlighting the careers of younger “rising stars,” including minority state legislators from Oklahoma and New Hampshire. After a dismal showing among minorities in the 2012 election, many Republican leaders have said the party must do better amid rapidly changing demographics.
Michael Steele, the first black Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland and a former Republican National Committee chairman, said event organizers told him that they were having difficulty attracting Republican speakers. He faulted GOP leaders for not making time to attend.
“It’s part of a continuing narrative that the party finds itself in with these big deals for minority communities around the country and how they perceive our response to them,” he said.