The No. 2 House Republican joined the annual Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage this weekend, at a time when the future of the Voting Rights Act is murky and the GOP is looking to make inroads among minority communities.
This was the second time that Majority Leader Eric Cantor joined the trip, led annually by Rep. John Lewis and organized by the nonprofit Faith and Politics Institute. Last year, Cantor became the highest-ranking Republican to ever participate in the 14-year history of the event.
"It has added, certainly, to the knowledge base of the civil-rights movement, and I do think that just going through this experience with colleagues is something that helps break down barriers and will help facilitate problem-solving going forward," Cantor told National Journal.
D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton shared her experiences as a law student who had come to Mississippi to help organize the Freedom Summer. Participants on the pilgrimage also marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, a commemoration of the 49th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Lewis, who served as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at the time, was beaten badly during that demonstration. And the horrific images of peaceful marchers being attacked by authorities helped to create the momentum that led to congressional approval of the Voting Rights Act.
Now Congress is considering a rewrite to a section of the Voting Rights Act, after the Supreme Court struck down key portions of the monumental civil-rights legislation. The rewrite, from Reps. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican, and John Conyers, a Democrat, would create a new formula that would revive federal oversight of voting laws for just four states. Before the Supreme Court ruling, all or part of 15 states were covered under the legislation.
This less-rigorous measure has drawn criticism from some lawmakers and civil-rights groups. "We're walking a narrow line," Conyers has told National Journal. "If we overreach, we will lose Republican votes. But if we don't go far enough, we will lose votes on our own side." Some Republicans have said that another section of the Voting Rights Act, untouched by the Court, provides sufficient protections.
When asked if the House will vote on the measure this year and what his position is on the legislative fix, Cantor noted the criticisms of the amendment and said he has discussed the suggested changes with the NAACP and its counsel as well as with some Democrats.
"We're working on it," Cantor said. "Again, I would like to be able to address the concerns that are out there so that we can move forward."
Cantor's participation in the pilgrimage comes also after the GOP received some criticism in 2013 when no elected Republicans participated in the March on Washington anniversary event on the Mall, due to a series of scheduling conflicts, health problems, and late invitations.
But this pilgrimage is more low-key, an annual event that typically draws mostly local and regional press. Cantor appears to have made a habit of going on the trip; he attended last year, and this year he was joined two House Republicans from Mississippi, Gregg Harper and Alan Nunnelee. Cantor said he would like more Republicans to participate in the future.
"It's really important, because Republicans are about people, and we want results to try and improve the opportunity for everybody in this country," he said while on the trip. "And if we could get the debate in Washington centered around helping people and then let the debate be about what is the best way to do that—I'm hopeful that being here, we can facilitate that kind of dialogue between the two sides, so that perhaps we can be successful in tearing down some of the preconceived notions that are built up for a variety of reasons."
This article appears in the March 11, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.