Civil Rights activists and Republican party leaders Monday swapped partisan attacks for friendly handshakes during a Capitol Hill luncheon commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington—an event where the chairman of the GOP extended an olive branch to the African American community.
Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus and a number of prominent African Americans all praised the legacy of King during the afternoon ceremony, even as Priebus acknowledged that his party needs to continue to expand its appeal to black voters.
"If you’re going to make the sale, you have to show up…and today is a good lesson of that," he said referring to the fact that Republicans need to make concerted, strategic efforts to gain a bigger share of the African American vote in coming elections.
The event at the Capital Hill Club featured some of the most prominent black Republican politicians as well as senior lawmakers. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, drew loud applause as he vowed to do everything in his power to preserve sections of the Voting Rights Act that were overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this summer.
“We’ve got a job to do,” said Sensenbrenner, who sat between National Urban League President Marc Morial and the NAACP’s Hilary Shelton. Regarding his efforts to rework the act after the Supreme Court removed some of its provisions, he added: “This has been bi-partisan and bi-cameral. A month a half ago, Congressman John Lewis and I went over to the Senate and testified and at the end of the testimony Mr. Lewis put his arm around my shoulder and said ‘Jim you are my friend and my brother’ and that was one of the highest compliments that I have received in my almost 46 years of public office.”
The luncheon comes as a Pew Research Center survey found that there is a wide gulf between how Democrats and Republicans see the issue of race and whether more needs to be done to achieve King’s dream. Thirty-five percent of Republicans surveyed say “a lot more” needs to be done to reach racial equality. But 63 percent of Democrats believe more needs to be done, according to the survey.
Several African American business leaders said they have been open to GOP entreaties for years. Bob Woodson, Founder and President of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, said: “The Civil Rights movement was never a monolithic movement. What propelled us forward was the quality of the discussion.”
Meanwhile, Civil Rights leaders said they were impressed with the GOP effort. “The NAACP is a non-partisan organization,” said Shelton, Washington bureau chief of the NAACP. “We were deeply touched that the Republican party reached out and invited us to this event as they celebrated both the March on Washington and Jim Sensenbrenner who was one of the last architects of the last reauthorization of the Voting Rights bill.”
Priebus said he was surprised by the luncheon’s attendance, which totaled about 200: "When we said we were going to do a luncheon commemorating the March on Washington, we thought maybe since we were in recess that we would get 100 people. We are jammed packed with an overflow room down stairs filled what does that say. What it tells you is that people want our party to fight for the African American vote."