When Kentucky Senator Rand Paul went to Howard University earlier this year to speak to African American college students and commence his outreach to the black community, I—and others—were frustrated by his refusal to acknowledge the dual heritage of his political party. He wanted to claim the Great Emancipator—“We are the Party of Lincoln!”—without acknowledging the cultural legacy of Ronald Reagan, who railed against “welfare queens,” capitalized on white fear, and—as an opponent of the Voting Rights Act—stood on the wrong side of history when it mattered most.
With that said, Paul had the right idea: There is a reachable constituency for conservative politics in the black community. Republicans just have to work for it. But what does that look like? If yesterday’s luncheon commemorating the 50th anniversary of March on Washington is any indication, it’s a version of traditional black conservatism, with its emphasis on community building and uplift.
Organized by the Republican National Committee, this event was both a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, and a showcase for black Republicanism. The large majority of the attendees were African American, and they included former congressman Allen West, T.W. Shannon—speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives—Alveda King (niece of Martin Luther King Jr.), and a large variety of party members and activists.
Figures like West have made themselves famous by decrying the “Democratic plantation” and attacking other African Americans for their partisan affiliation, but that rhetoric was absent from the program. Instead, several speakers gave what were, essentially, sermons on community responsibility and uplift—language that wouldn’t be out of place on a Saturday at the barbershop, or on Sunday from the pulpit.
“We need to be prayerful in reaffirming our commitment to making this a better nation,” said Robert J. Brown, chairman of PR firm B&C Associates, “This nation was built on compromise, and if we don’t learn how to get it all together, we’re going to sink this ship.” He was echoed by Robert L. Woodson Sr., president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. “Both political parties should compete on how they treat the least among God’s children,” he said, “We don’t need outreach, but uplift.”
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