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Juan Williams: GOP blinders on civil rights

Byron Buck for The Faith & Politics Institute

Rep. Gregg Harper, a Republican from Mississippi’s 3rd Congressional District, is standing near the blood stained driveway in Jackson where civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated as he fought for black voting rights in 1963.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi’s 2nd District, which includes Jackson, is just a few feet away from Harper. Both are listening as Evers’ widow, Myrlie, tells the story of hearing the shot and seeing her husband crawling, bleeding as he tried to get into the house. Earlier, Rep. John Lewis (D- Ga.), a former civil rights worker, started to cry as he embraced Myrlie Evers in the driveway.

After this shared emotional moment of American history, I asked Harper how often he talks to Thompson. The Republican and Democrat have adjoining districts.

“Not much,” said Harper. “We’re cordial, you know. We don’t vote the same way.”

Later, Thompson tells me they “never talk.” And he does not talk much with Rep. Alan Nunnelee, a Republican from Mississippi’s First District either, though on this trip they agreed to have lunch soon.

In an effort to “bridge the divides” and bring politicians from the broken, unproductive Congress together, the bipartisan Faith & Politics Institute recently sponsored its 14th Civil Rights Pilgrimage to mark the 50th anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer.

Their goal, according to the organization’s president Liz McCloskey, is to inspire the politicians to talk across political lines by sharing an inspiring moment of American history.

But this year’s trip was stunted by the absence of Republicans. The American Airlines charter that left Washington on March 7 with 150 people did not have one Republican among the three senators and 12 House members on board.  Over the three days, 23 elected officials joined some part of the trip. Only three of them were Republicans.

Last year, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) took the trip. House Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) went in 2012. This year, Cantor joined again for one of the three days. Harper and Nunnelle came along on the day the delegation touched near their districts. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (R) attended a dinner.

“They think it’s a Democratic thing,” Lewis said, when I asked him about the sparse representation of Republicans on a trip designed to heal the nation’s political divide. He said past trips have helped to generate some conversations.

Last year, there were eight Republicans among the 33 members of Congress on the trip. Lewis said that trip spurred Cantor’s interest in a new Voting Rights Act.

This year, Cantor stood on stage at a chapel at Tougaloo College with David Goodman, the brother of slain civil rights worker Andrew Goodman, as a rabbi chanted a prayer to bless the memory of Andrew and two others killed by white racists in Mississippi in 1964.

That afternoon Cantor told me he brought his son the year before. His voice rich with passion, he said that trip made him “a better person.” His fellow Virginia Sen. Tim Kane (D) was on the trip. Like Thompson and Harper, they say they hardly talk — though one recent joint effort led to a bill to help a sick child in their state.  

Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democrats’ minority whip, said the bottom line is that Republicans occupy overwhelmingly white districts and view the civil rights pilgrimage as a “non-event or negative event.”

For Republicans, “this is not their comfort zone,” Hoyer explained, because they think civil rights history appeals to liberal-leaning voters. And he noted that Southern Republicans come from overwhelmingly white districts due to gerrymandering that has separated black and white voters to protect the GOP’s dominance in the South.

The lack of Republicans this year is significant given Congress’ failure to restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court eliminated the pre-clearance provision of the bill in 2013. That clause required states with a history of racial discrimination to get permission from the Justice Department before making any changes to their voting procedures.

Since the ruling, Texas has begun requiring photo identification for voters and acted on a redistricting plan that would previously have had to win federal approval.

A federal court had previously blocked the Texas voter identification plan. And without the voting rights law to protect the rights of minority voters, Mississippi and North Carolina have also put in place new photo-identification rules.

Republican strategists strongly favor the new voter identification laws. Civil rights history is lost on them as they try to limit the impact of blacks, Latinos and Asians voting overwhelmingly for Democrats. Currently a bill to restore some of the Voting Rights Act’s federal pre-clearance provisions is stalled in Congress, trapped by the partisan divide.

Toward the end of the pilgrimage, Hoyer pulled out of his wallet a laminated card with a 1774 quote from Edmund Burke. A legislator’s responsibility, Burke said, is to represent the desires of his constituents but also to use “mature judgment” and never sacrifice “enlightened conscience.”

At the moment, however, few Republicans other than Cantor are even willing to go on a trip that takes them face to face with civil rights history. It might prompt them to act with “enlightened conscience” and pass a new Voting Rights Act.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel