House GOP leaders not bothering with Selma anniversary

Alabama state troopers attacking John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Alabama state troopers attacking John Lewis at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” when civil rights activists trying to march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to the state capital of Montgomery to protest voting restrictions were instead beaten with billy clubs by state troopers and local police.

Nearly 100 members of Congress will be in Selma during a three-day event to mark the anniversary, as will President Obama and former President George W. Bush. The lawmakers who won’t be there are the members of the Republican leadership team in the House of Representatives. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell isn’t bothering to show up, either.

According to an article in Politico, “None of the top leaders — House Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, or Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who was once thought likely to attend to atone for reports that he once spoke before a white supremacist group — will be in Selma for the three-day event.”

Do they realize how tone-deaf this is? After all, Scalise once described himself as “David Duke without the baggage, but electable,” referring to the former Ku Klux Klan leader who headed the supremacist group when Scalise addressed it in 2002.

“It is very disappointing that not a single Republican leader sees the value in participating in this 50th commemoration of the signing of the Voting Rights Act. I had hoped that some of the leadership would attend, but apparently none of them will,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina, according to the Politico story. “The Republicans always talk about trying to change their brand and be more appealing to minority folks and be in touch with the interests of African-Americans. This is very disappointing.”

To be fair, some 23 Republican members of Congress will be there — the largest number of Republicans ever to attend the annual event. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the first African-American Republican elected from the South since Reconstruction, is one of the co-sponsors, along with Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.). Democratic co-sponsors are Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Rep. Terri Sewell, also of Alabama. All of the co-sponsors urged fellow lawmakers to attend.

The event, “At the Bridge,” is organized by a nonprofit and nonpartisan group called the Faith and Politics Institute. It’s one of many events being held in Alabama this weekend to mark the anniversary, including film festivals, art exhibits, workshops, lectures, and concerts. There also will be a reenactment of the bridge crossing, which no doubt will be filled with lawmakers.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who participated in the 1965 march and was beaten, said he was disappointed in the lack of GOP leadership at the event. “I wish we had someone in [Republican] leadership going,” he told Politico. But in another story in USA Today, he said he was happy to see more Republican participation.

Lewis also said he hoped the event would increase backing among Republicans to support needed fixes in the Voting Rights Act, which was partially gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court. “We can talk in fellowship and get to know each other better,” he told USA Today. “It’s going to be wonderful.” Wishful thinking, if nothing else.

For their part, officials of Faith and Politics said they, too, were pleased with the turnout. “We are very pleased that the Faith and Politics Institute is gathering an unprecedented amount of senators and members of Congress in bipartisan fashion to honor and reflect upon the history of the civil rights movement and the work that still needs to be done,” said Rob Liberatore, chairman of the board of the Faith and Politics Institute, in the USA Today story.

Maybe by the time the weekend rolls around, some of those in the GOP leadership will have come to their senses and will head down to Selma. Even though the official registration for the Faith and Politics event is closed, I’m sure they would be welcomed with open arms. Unlike the marchers 50 years ago.

UPDATE: Apparently GOP leaders were tired of bad publicity. Now Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) will attend the Selma event. He’ll have to squeeze in; organizers are expecting 100,000 people.


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