Remembering history

Apr 17, 2013 at 5:00 am

Sen. Rand Paul is seemingly on a mission to tie black folks back to their past and the Republican Party. His whistle stop “Reconnect the Race Tour” included talks at historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and locally at Simmons College last week. Paul’s message at both places seems to be that black people should consider coming home to the Republican Party.

Since my arrival in Louisville, I’ve been particularly intrigued by Republican attempts to make inroads in the black community without actually changing their political ideology. In the past, they’ve targeted black pastors and their flocks. I was rightfully suspicious and quite critical of former Congresswoman Anne Northup’s use of “faith-based initiative” funds during her decade in office (1997-2007). I must admit Northup did a great job of delivering grant money to select black churches and making sure everyone knew.

Confusingly, the money created the illusion that Northup (at minimum) and the Republican Party (at best) had the best interests of suffering black communities at heart. I don’t want to wrongfully demonize Northup in that I don’t know her personal intentions and desires (other than re-election), but it would be immature to argue the GOP’s politics were (or are) sensitive to the plight of the majority of black Americans.

Despite this fact, ministers joining Northup at her press conferences to announce the grants (held around election time) effectively muddied the political waters. The churches received their money, Northup picked up implicit ministerial endorsements, and a percentage of their flocks’ votes. It was an effective political move.

To date, Paul doesn’t seem inclined to use money as bait like Northup. He is using history — at least part of it. Before visiting Simmons, he warmed up with a speech to students at historically black Howard University in D.C. He took his audience on a historical odyssey through the Republican Party’s championing of civil rights.

He boldly proclaimed, “The story of emancipation, voting rights and citizenship, from Fredrick Douglass until the modern civil rights era is, in fact, the history of the Republican Party. How did the party that elected the first black U.S. senator, the party that elected the first 20 African-American congressmen, become a party that now loses 95 percent of the black vote?” Provocative.

During Paul’s sweeping glorification of the party of the “Great Emancipator,” he is often correct with his historical facts, but he is almost always incomplete. He is right — Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. What he fails to recount is that Lincoln’s ideal solution to slavery was colonization — not emancipation. He also fails to note that, technically, the Emancipation Proclamation freed no one. He is correct that the first black elected U.S. senator was a Republican. Unfortunately, the students had to remind him that the senator’s name was Edward Brooke. I’ll even add to Paul’s case. The first two appointed black U.S. senators during Reconstruction (Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce) were also Republicans.

What Paul doesn’t say is the Republican Party has slowly flowed into becoming a parochial, often extremist entity unrecognizable when compared to its 19th century incarnation. From Strom Thurmond to the Tea Party, today’s Republican Party is not what it once was. It is now a nasty, mean-spirited group, often insensitive to the needs of America’s marginalized.

My friend the Rev. Kevin Cosby hosted Paul during his visit to Simmons. I regard Kevin as one of Louisville’s most intellectual and politicized ministers. He is willing to give people of all political stripes an audience, and I think that’s good. Kevin is nimble enough to simultaneously balance agreements and serious points of departure where Paul is concerned. Everybody can’t do that, because they aren’t politically and historically sound. It is becoming increasingly evident that Rand Paul is no lightweight and those who deal with him had better be prepared.

Say what you will about the senator — at least he’s trying. Speaking at Howard and Simmons took courage. He has also clearly learned a bit of history about Republicans and American racial struggle. He just leaves some things out, which can be dangerous. Thankfully, Howard students have learned a bit as well. When Sen. Paul asked if they knew the founders of the NAACP were Republicans, a student shouted back, “We know our history!” Let’s hope Louisvillians know (or decide to learn) theirs as well.