Updated 5:23 p.m. | Speaker John A. Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the House’s two most senior Republicans, were invited to speak at the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington — but declined.
That wasn’t a wise choice, said Julian Bond, a renowned civil rights activist, in an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday afternoon.
“What’s really telling, I think, is the podium behind me, just count at the end of the day how many Republicans will be there,” Bond told news anchor Alex Wagner. “They asked senior President Bush to come, he was ill. They asked junior Bush, he said he had to stay with his father.
“They asked a long list of Republicans to come,” Bond continued, “and to a man and woman they said ‘no.’ And 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 gonna get ’em this way.”
According to Boehner’s spokesman Michael Steel, the Ohio Republican “was invited, but spoke at the Congressional ceremony instead, as did Sens. Reid and McConnell, and Rep. Pelosi.”
Cantor, meanwhile, was asked 12 days ago to participate in Wednesday’s event commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s delivery of the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, according to an aide. The Virginia Republican, however, is currently traveling in North Dakota and Ohio, touring energy sites with Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and participating in “nonofficial events,” according to an aide.
Cantor’s decision to turn down the invitation to speak is especially striking given his stated commitment to passing a rewrite of the Voting Rights Act in the 113th Congress, and the many opportunities he has taken over the past several weeks to publicly reflect on the experience of traveling with Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., to Selma, Ala.
“The Leader hopes it’s an outstanding event fitting of the incredible legacy of Dr. King and is honored to have had the ability to honor that legacy earlier this year” with Lewis, said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper.
While Cantor and Boehner were among the Republicans who were invited, Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the only African-American in the Senate, was not invited, his office told CQ Roll Call.
According to a list obtained by CQ Roll Call, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was also invited to speak at Wednesday’s events, but according to a spokesman, the lawmaker was in Arizona all week with a schedule full of public events.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was also asked to attend in lieu of his brother, President George W. Bush, who reportedly had to turn down the invitation as he recovered from surgery due to an arterial blockage — not, as Bond suggested, he had to stay to attend to his also-ailing father.
“This was truly a bipartisan outreach effort,” said a spokesperson for the event in an email statement to CQ Roll Call. “All members of congress were invited to attend and the Republican leadership was invited to speak. Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s office was very helpful in trying to find someone to speak at the event. Making this commemoration bi-partisan was especially important to members of the King family, too.”
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.