The big surprise at the Republican National Committee’s lunch celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington was the loud ovation for an elderly white conservative. The tall, 70-year-old Congressman hobbled to the front of the room with a cane. He had to be helped up the stairs to the stage. But once he reached the microphone, his call for Congress to restore the full power of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) had the crowd scrambling to get to their feet and applaud him. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) defied political stereotypes and several other Republicans when he announced an end-of-the-year deadline for reviving the pre-clearance provision of the VRA. “I am committed to restoring the Voting Rights Act as an effective tool to prevent discrimination,” said Sensenbrenner to repeated cheers. He was chairman of the House Judiciary Committee when a bipartisan group approved reauthorization of the VRA in 2006. “This is something that has to be done by the end of the year so that a revised and constitutional Voting Rights Act is in place by the 2014 elections — both the primaries and general election,” Sensenbrenner told his largely black Republican audience.
As a black Democrat, I was caught off-guard at the very start of the congressman’s speech. He began with a story about driving south as a boy with his father. The wealthy young man from Wisconsin was troubled by the servile status of blacks — they pumped the gas but a white man came out to get the money — and the separate restrooms and water fountains.
He said he had long conversations with his father about racial injustice and told his father something was very wrong in that part of America.
The tale carried an echo of President Lincoln’s story about traveling south as a boy to St. Louis and New Orleans in the early 1800s and being horrified at seeing a slave auction. In both cases, these northern Republicans became political leaders with a commitment to ending the structured, legal inequality of their day.
Sensenbrenner told the overflow lunch crowd that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who has started hearings on possible ways to repair the VRA, recently called him a “civil rights icon.” But the congressman sees himself differently: “I am not an icon,” Sensenbrenner told the crowd last Monday. “I’m a mechanic and my job is to fix the Voting Rights Act.”