Rand Paul tries to outrun history at Howard

The Tea Party senator hoped Howard University would forget his comments on the Civil Rights Act

Topics: Rand Paul, African Americans, Editor's Picks, the civil rights act of 1964, Howard University, Republican Party, History,

Give Rand Paul some credit for attempting to do what several decades of elections have shown is a tall order: Get African-Americans to vote Republican. But in order to make his point today at Howard University, he asked the crowd to not only look past his own brief opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but to willfully ignore the fact that the law fundamentally remade American political parties to the point that they bear little resemblance to their 1950s versions.

In a jam-packed auditorium at the historically black college in Washington, D.C., Paul gave the hard sell, arguing that the Republican message of smaller government, school choice and individual freedom should appeal to minorities who have been victims of state-sponsored oppression, crumbling schools and general subjugation.

But most of his speech was a history lesson, as he spent the first 20 minutes insisting that Democrats, and not Republicans, are responsible for every ill that has befallen blacks in the United States, from the preservation of slavery to Jim Crow. “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,” Paul said. “The horrible Jim Crow in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s was all Democrats.”

But the crowd, which was respectful throughout (save for two protesters who were immediately booted), probably already knew this. When Paul blanked on the name of Edward Brooke, a black senator from Massachusetts elected in 1966, the audience shouted out his name in near-unison. When Paul asked the students if they were aware that most of the founders of the NAACP were Republicans, everyone shouted “yes” or “duh.”

And they also probably know about the massive political realignment that occurred with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, in which pro-segregation Southern Democrats fled the party to join the GOP, which makes it meaningless to extrapolate about today’s Republican or Democratic Party based on what they did before the civil rights era. And they probably know that Democratic leaders of the ’60s realized they risked losing control of Washington for generations by pushing on civil rights, but that they did it anyway.



But Paul made no mention of this massive shift, presumably hoping he could convince the students that the Democratic Party of today is still as racist as its most racist elements once were 70 years ago.

In fact, a student asked Paul about this during the Q&A section, wondering which GOP Paul identifies with — the pre- or post-1968 party? “The argument that I’m trying to make is that we haven’t changed — there are some of us that haven’t changed,” Paul said. “We don’t see an abrupt difference” between the party of Lincoln and the party of Richard Nixon.

As receptive as they were, the students did not seem convinced.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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