Republican leaders are commemorating the 1963 March on Washington in their own way, but the limited nature of their effort and GOP positions on several key issues show how far the Republicans still have to go to compete with Democrats in courting African-Americans.
The Republican National Committee held a luncheon Monday to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic march. The Republican event featured RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and African-American Republicans including T.W. Shannon, the speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and former Rep. Allen West of Florida, who lost his bid for re-election last year.
Also among the 200 attendees were representatives of the NAACP and the National Urban League. Congressional Republicans had marked the 1963 march's anniversary last month, prior to the start of their August recess, with an event in the Capitol featuring House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Priebus praised King's legacy and said the outreach will continue. "If you're going to make the sale, you have to show up," he said.
Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., a legal-affairs specialist, pledged to do everything he can to restore or update sections of the Voting Rights Act which were overturned by the Supreme Court several weeks ago in what civil rights activists called a serious setback.
The 1963 march also will be celebrated at what promises to be a large rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the actual 50th anniversary of the civil-rights march Wednesday, following a separate commemoration in Washington last weekend that was dominated by Democrats. The Wednesday event will also feature Democrats in prominent roles, led by President Obama, the first African-American president, who will speak on the Lincoln Memorial steps where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" address 50 years ago.
Former Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter also are scheduled to address the crowd. Former President George W. Bush, a Republican, was invited but declined to attend because he is recovering from a heart procedure, CNN reported.
It's clear that the GOP's problems in appealing to blacks won't be solved simply by commemorating "I Have a Dream." Many African-American leaders consider the GOP wrong on a number of issues, such as its opposition to Obama's health-care law and other programs which are popular among blacks. Another sore point among some African-Americans is GOP support for imposing stricter voting standards in several states.
Obama's Justice Department is challenging a voter-identification law in Texas, enacted by a Republican-dominated legislature and approved by Republican Gov. Rick Perry. Attorney General Eric Holder argues that the law would hinder the ability of many blacks in Texas to vote. Such legislation is considered improper voter suppression by many civil-rights activists, and it is being implemented or considered in several other states. This is driving an even bigger wedge between the GOP and the black community.
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell said last weekend that Republican efforts to pass voter-identification laws would "backfire" by mobilizing African Americans and other minority voters to oppose GOP candidates. Powell, who is black, was a prominent figure in three Republican administrations, those of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
A recent Pew Research Center poll finds that Americans are deeply split on racial issues. Forty-nine percent say that "a lot more" needs to be done to achieve Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of racial equality; about 30 percent say "some more" needs to be done, and 16 percent say little or nothing needs to be done.
Analyzed by party, 63 percent of Democrats say "a lot more" needs to be accomplished, but only 35 percent of Republicans feel that way.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.