President Obama, former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and dozens of political and social leaders joined a crowd of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday to honor the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
Among the thousands of people at the event, however, there was not a single Republican elected official in attendance.
Former Republican presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush did not attend because of medical issues, but both issued individual statements honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
The House’s two most senior Republicans, Speaker John Boehner (OH) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) were also noticeably missing from the ceremony.
A spokesman for Boehner told MSNBC that the Speaker “was invited, but spoke at the congressional ceremony instead” – an event especially for lawmakers that occurred on July 31. According to his spokesman, Boehner was participating in “unofficial duties” on Wednesday.
Representative Cantor’s absence was more surprising.
Cantor was asked to speak at the event 12 days earlier, but declined because he was already “scheduled to be in North Dakota and Ohio on Wednesday.” His aides told MSNBC that Cantor tried to find another Republican official to take his place, but was unsuccessful.
Cantor’s decision not to attend is striking, given that he has spent months pushing for the GOP to improve its outreach to minorities. In February, Cantor delivered a speech outlining proposals to broaden his party’s appeal. Also in February, he traveled to Alabama with Representative John Lewis (D-GA) — who spoke at the March on Washington ceremony — on an annual civil rights pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama. During the past several weeks, Cantor has spent much time “publicly reflecting on the experience of traveling” to Alabama with Lewis, and also vowed he would work to pass a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act in Congress.
And, just this week, Cantor wrote a piece for Yahoo! News about the “legacy of the civil rights movement.”
But instead of celebrating that legacy on Wednesday, the majority leader was in North Dakota and Ohio — not on official duty, but rather touring energy sites with fellow Republican Representative Kevin Cramer (ND).
In a move that didn’t look so great for the Republican Party, Cantor spent Wednesday meeting with members of the North Dakota Petroleum Council – a lobby group comprised of CEOs known for donating millions of dollars to GOP SuperPACs. Cantor himself has received over $600,000 from the oil and gas industry.
On Thursday morning, Cantor took to Twitter to address his oil tour and criticize Obama, writing: “Visited North Dakota yesterday and saw firsthand their incredible jobs and energy story. President Obama should visit and see for himself.”
As Cantor rebuked Obama over Twitter, other Republicans — and, of course, Fox News — cried that the GOP was intentionally excluded from Wednesday’s event. On Fox News’ On the Record, Greta Van Susteren acknowledged that several Republicans, such as Boehner and Cantor, were invited to the ceremony, but asked why the only African-American Republican senator, Tim Scott (SC), was not. As she spoke, Fox ran a banner on the bottom of the screen announcing that the “black GOP senator” was “snubbed at [the] MLK anniversary.”
However, an email exchange obtained by Roll Call shows that all members of Congress were invited to the ceremony. Scott was, in fact, invited to the event, but his office declined, saying that the congressman already had plans in South Carolina on Wednesday.
This means that every single one of the 279 Republicans in Congress declined to attend.
As the nation’s voting demographics continue to change, the GOP is not doing much to gain favor among minority groups, despite members’ supposed efforts to bring reform to the troubled party. Wednesday’s mass no-show may have done even more damage. As renowned civil rights activist and former chairman of the NAACP Julian Bond said: “That they would turn their backs on this event was telling of them, and the fact that they seem to want to get black votes, they’re not going to get them this way.”
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