Today marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, and there will be a host of government officials and dignitaries on hand to commemorate the event. Conspicuous in their absence, though, will be most of the congressional Republican leadership. According to CNN, Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will each be elsewhere. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy will attend, but that decision was apparently not made until last night.
Knowing full well that this is even more of a sore subject today among many conservatives than it traditionally was, I still have to say that this is a mistake. What should have been an extremely easy call at virtually no cost to the leadership has immediately turned into yet another albatross for liberals to hang upon the shoulders of a Republican party still struggling to expand the tent. Charles C.W. Cooke has a beautifully written editorial at National Review this weekend which puts everything in perspective. He speaks fondly of the Right’s love for the 4th of July and our appreciation of a history of freedom, and then goes on to point out why the half century anniversary of the Selma march is of great importance also. Failing to show support for this event is wrong, as well as being seriously tone deaf politics.
If we are to regard the founding generation as being worthy of contemporary political lionization — and we most assuredly should — then we must consider those who marched at Selma to be so, too. If we are to put George Washington upon our plinths, and to eulogize him on our currency, we must agree to elevate Martin Luther King Jr. to the same dizzy heights. They are less famous, perhaps, but by virtue of their brave march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, John Lewis and Hosea Williams immortalized themselves into quintessential American heroes in the mold of Sam Adams and George Mason. To miss an opportunity to solemnize their daring is to blunder, disgracefully.
If all men really are created equal, the anniversary of Selma must be treated as a date every bit as important to American history as is the end of the Siege of Yorktown. As it would be unthinkable for the leadership of the Republican party to ignore July Fourth, it should be unthinkable for its luminaries not to celebrate the anniversary of the March to Montgomery either. Where have you gone, Speaker Boehner, a movement turns its lonely eyes to you.
While I completely agree with Cooke, I don’t do so in a vacuum. A recent poll which shows that the vast majority of Americans feel that race relations in this country have either gotten worse or failed to improve these past six years is particularly important in the context of this situation. There was a time when the chief issues under discussion in debates over racial inequity were obvious discrepancies in the system. Making sure that minorities were able to vote, to get an education, to obtain a job and to enjoy the same potential for equality of opportunity – not outcome – in America are things which everyone, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, should be able to get behind. (If you can’t then there’s really not much more to say.) And when people got out in the streets for marches and demonstrations in support of those principles you could find participants of all colors and political stripes.
Recently, though, protests have taken on a decidedly different tone and purpose. The anti-cop sentiment running barely below the surface of many recent marches and events, frequently punctuated by violence, has soured the attitude of many conservatives, and for good reason. The insulting messages underlying so many of these displays and the media statements by their spokespersons have turned off many observers, and whatever good will there might have been previously has been drained a bit. But the Selma observances are cut from their own cloth and deal with a much older and widely revered piece of American history. Yes, it’s possible that some misguided activists will try to hijack the event into some sort of Hands Up Don’t Shoot affair, but they shouldn’t be allowed to ruin it for everyone else.
There will be some prominent Republicans there, but the absence of the Speaker and the Senate Majority Leader is a bad sign. Having Kevin McCarthy attend is a step in the right direction, but the fact that it took until literally the eleventh hour on Friday night to RSVP leaves the impression that this was never a priority for the House GOP and he’s only going now because someone experienced an “Oh No!” moment when the media began discussing it. The Republican Party embraces a platform of opportunity for all Americans and is, at its best, the truly colorblind, post-racial agenda which everyone claims they want. But we also need to accept that there were evils in the past which had to be overcome and recognize those who sacrificed greatly to make progress happen. Paying proper tribute to the Selma march was just one of many easy ways this could be done. Somebody dropped the ball here and we’ll be hearing about this for the rest of the election cycle.