The 50th anniversary march and speeches to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech were inspiring in the sheer variety of people present and the breadth of issues discussed. It wasn't just about blacks seeking justice in a white-dominated country. It was about justice and equality for everyone – black, white, make, female, gay, straight, with or without disabilities. Yes, we have a ways to go in reaching true equality, but the very scene – featuring so many people of different races, ethnicities and age – was a sign of how successful a culture can be, even with the natural tumult that comes form quickly changing demographics.
That's why it was all the more disappointing – and truly baffling, from a pure political perspective – that there were no Republican speakers.
Both former presidents Bush were invited, and declined, citing health reasons. That makes sense; the elder President Bush has been ailing on and off over the last year, and the younger former president recently had a procedure done on his heart. He sent a lovely and gracious statement to mark the day. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush declined to take the place of his family members, and we can't blame him for that. However sincere and well-intentioned he might be, and however apolitical his remarks might have been, it's a certainty that many reporters and pundits would interpret his presence as some sort of kick-off for the 2016 campaign. That would not only have been terribly unfair, but it would have detracted from the purpose of the day. Jeb Bush was actually displaying his respect for the memory of Martin Luther King by staying away and keeping 2016 talk out of the story.
But why weren't House Speaker John Boehner or House Majority Leader Eric Cantor there? Both were invited, and both declined, citing scheduling conflicts. But this wasn't some last-minute party; this was a long-anticipated event. And even if the formal invitation came only weeks ago, both should have made time. So why didn't they?
It might be tempting for some on the left to presume that neither man cares about civil rights, or that they hate African-Americans, but those ideas are absurd. Cantor in particular has talked about the importance of fixing the Voting Rights Act (as directed by the Supreme Court) in order to save it, and has also talked very poignantly about his trip with Rep. John Lewis to Selma, Alabama, the locale of the iconic freedom march. It's ridiculous to interpret Boehner and Cantor's absence as a rejection of King's legacy or civil rights.
Tragically, the answer may be much simpler and arguably more disturbing. Is it just that Republicans, some of whom are facing Tea party challenges in primaries, are reluctant to even be on the same stage as President Obama? We have seen cases where very conservative lawmakers – sincere conservatives, not people who define conservatism as the refusal to talk to anyone who disagrees with them – are being criticized by malcontents in their districts for even talking to Obama or other leading Democrats, let alone negotiating with them.
This group treats Obama like he's some sort of brutal, third-world dictator – or maybe just Satan – and punishes anyone who gets near him. It used to be considered an honor to meet the president and be photographed with him, even if you didn't vote for him. He's the president, after all. But for the irrationally hateful segment of the population, having a photo with Obama is like being in the background of a picture of mobsters at a restaurant, knowing that photo is in an FBI file somewhere.
The remarkable thing is that the GOP, on paper, at least (having done a comprehensive study of itself earlier this year) seems to understand that the party has to reach out beyond white America if it ever wants to win another national election. Winning a statewide election is also getting harder and harder to do without support from African-Americans, Latinos and other (for the moment) minority groups. True, Boehner and other Republicans have spoken at other events marking the 50th anniversary, but those events just underscore the problem. In commemorating a pivotal moment in American history and civil rights, the GOP perversely chose to make the events separate but equal.
Abe Lincoln was a Republican, and he freed the slaves. The GOP grew out of a coalition of anti-slavery "Conscience Whigs." It's time for the leaders of the Republican party to take their party back.