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.
Steele was not invited to speak because he isn’t a current party or elected official. “But if I were the current chairman and hadn’t been invited, that’d be a different story,” he said. “If I hadn’t been invited, I would have forced myself on them.”
The RNC held its own commemoration event on Monday in Washington with black Republicans and conservative civil rights activists.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio), the highest-ranking Republican in Washington, was invited to attend Wednesday’s gathering but declined because of a scheduling conflict, aides said.
Boehner was in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and had no public schedule Wednesday but has been headlining dozens of GOP fundraisers nationwide this month. Aides noted that he led an official congressional commemoration of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech on July 31 at the U.S. Capitol that other top congressional leaders attended.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) received an invitation to attend 12 days ago, which was too late to change scheduled political appearances Wednesday in North Dakota and Ohio, aides said.
Cantor led a congressional delegation to Selma, Ala., in March to observe the 48th anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march at the invitation of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the only surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington.
Daughtry said Cantor tried hard to find another GOP lawmaker to take his place but was unsuccessful. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) also was invited to speak but declined for scheduling reasons, she said.
Among the congressional Democrats who spoke Wednesday were Lewis and Reps. Joaquin Castro (Tex.), Donna F. Edwards (Md.) and Marcia L. Fudge (Ohio), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The only senator to speak was Angus King (Maine), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats and who recalled attending the original 1963 march as a young college student.
Aides said King was invited to speak two weeks ago by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who also skipped the Washington event but attended a commemoration event in Nevada. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was not invited to speak, aides said.
Other congressional leaders were absent in Washington on Wednesday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) attended a march commemoration at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco after participating in another event on the Mall on Saturday, aides said.
Some Republicans noted that organizers did not invite Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.), the only black Republican senator, who was appointed to his seat this year. Aides said Scott planned to attend a church service honoring King on Wednesday night in North Charleston, S.C.
Hamil Harris contributed to this report.