Eric Cantor Makes a Civil-Rights Pilgrimage

The House GOP leader made another civil-rights trip, and looks forward to how his party will reach out to more voters.

Cantor: Pro-repeal spinner.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
March 10, 2014, 10:08 a.m.

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.”

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