Scalise says he'll go to Selma 'next year'

Francis Rivera

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise has declined entreaties from black lawmakers to attend next week's civil rights ceremonies in Selma, Ala.

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) had urged the Louisiana Republican to participate in the events commemorating the watershed 1965 march as a way to mend fences following news that he'd given a speech before a white supremacist group as a state lawmaker in 2002.

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But Scalise said Thursday that, while he's made "no final decisions," he likely won't be making the trip.

“We've talked to them about going,” he told The Hill. “We're definitely going next year.”

The news has frustrated CBC leaders, who saw Scalise's participation this year as a public gesture of atonement and camaraderie with the black community in the wake of past missteps.

Scalise churned headlines in December after a Louisiana-based blogger reported that, as a state lawmaker 12 years earlier, the No. 3 House Republican had addressed the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, a racist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. 

Subsequent reports uncovered earlier votes he'd made against resolutions apologizing for slavery and creating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Scalise issued a statement saying the speech was a “mistake I regret,” but he's been largely silent on the topic since then. 

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he was “disappointed” that Scalise won't attend the event, which marks the 50th anniversary of the famous march, in which Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) took part.

“I think it would have been good for him to come to demonstrate, for optics more than anything else, his commitment to equality and that he has no racial hostilities,” Cleaver, who formerly headed the CBC, said Thursday.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) echoed that message, arguing that Scalise “needs to do a lot of things” to repair his image in the eyes of minorities. A visit to Selma, Thompson said, would be a good start.

“He has significant relationship-building [to do], especially with the black community,” Thompson said. “Anything that he can show that will paint him in a different light can only be positive for him.”

Scalise is not alone among GOP leaders; as Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), head of the House Republican Conference, will also not attend the events in Selma next week. 

CBC Chairman G.K. ButterfieldG.K. ButterfieldEmphasis on diversity in Democratic convention lineup Congressional Black Caucus calls for peace after Baton Rouge Black caucus issues call to action MORE (D-N.C.), who had also urged Scalise to attend the Selma events, said 22 Republicans have committed to the trip. He's holding out hope that GOP leaders will still decide to join.

“Hopefully they’re still trying to arrange their schedules so they can attend,” Butterfield told The Hill this week.

The March 7, 1965, march in Selma marked a watershed moment in the civil rights movement after the participants, en route to Montgomery to protest black inequality at the polls, were attacked by state police and other opponents of their cause. Lewis, now a 15-term congressman, was beaten savagely.

Dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” the march catalyzed the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act just months later. 

Some CBC members, noting the connection between Selma and voting rights, argued that those lawmakers traveling to Alabama for next week's ceremonies should be ready to vote in support of broader voting rights when they return to Congress. 

“I disagree with people who would go and use this solemn occasion to simply perform a photo-op and try to make political hay out of it,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said Thursday, “but then come back here and refuse to vote for the Voting Rights Act of 2015.”