(G.A. Hardaway, a Democrat, represents the 93rd District in the Tennessee General Assembly, including part of Shelby County and the City of Memphis. He is currently the Secretary of the Tennessee Black Caucus of State Legislators. On Friday, he released this commentary.)
Today, in my beloved Memphis, the Republican National Committee is continuing their spring meeting. Among the various decisions being made and events taking place is one of particular interest to me: a luncheon featuring a keynote speech from Kentucky Tea Party senator Rand Paul.
That Sen. Paul is speaking at a GOP luncheon is not at all notable; what is notable is that he is doing it here in Memphis, not one mile from the place where, on April 4, 1968, our city and our country was forever changed.
The legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King has weighed heavily on me lately, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the passage – and ultimate enactment – of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 this year. This law came to fruition only through the life's work of Dr. King and others, and is the codification of the great dream that he spoke of on our nation's National Mall on a hot day the summer before.
The Civil Rights Act created the framework for a number of necessary laws and changes in law enforcement that followed and were long overdue. Among its many provisions, it barred the unequal application of voter registration requirements; outlawed discrimination in hotels like the one Sen. Paul will be speaking at, motels, restaurants, theaters, and all other public accommodations; and it desegregated public facilities and encouraged the desegregation of public schools, authorizing the Attorney General to file suits to force school boards and districts across the country to comply.
It was truly a victory for all Americans – regardless of race, gender, creed, or financial circumstance. Its merits and protections have continuously been a vital part of the fabric of this country, and we all have benefitted from a freer and more just nation for it.
So for Senator Paul – who has poorly taken on the cause of promoting the Republican Party to more diverse audiences but has openly criticized the Civil Rights Act for infringing on the rights of private businesses to discriminate – to come here, to Memphis of all places, and espouse the principles and 'goodness' of today's Republican Party, excuse me if I'm not buying it.
Mr. Paul has a sordid history with race relations, not helped by his hiring to his inner circle and subsequent defense of Jack Hunter, who for 13 years was a South Carolina radio shock jock known as "The Southern Avenger" and supported white racial pride. Hunter was Paul's Social Media Director, and one of his advisers on foreign policy. He admitted that not only did he know about Hunter's past – which included frequently dressing in a Confederate wrestling mask – but that it would not have affected his decision to hire him.
Senator Paul also supports the cynical campaign by Republicans in states all across the country to restrict eligible Americans' access to voting. Paul has said that he supports voter ID requirements, and dismissed the need for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – because "we're beyond that now" and "we have an African-American president."
Get real, Senator.
It has been well documented that in places like Ohio, Texas, here in Tennessee and states throughout the nation, Republican-backed measures ranging from requiring identification at the polls, reducing the number of polling locations, gutting the amount of early voting hours and days, and eliminating same-day registration have been part of a coordinated effort to make it more difficult for working families, women, African Americans, Latinos, and young people to vote. Thankfully in Wisconsin and Arkansas, the Civil Rights Act and what's left of the Voting Rights Act were in place to slow them down.
Early voting has been a stalwart in black communities – particularly on Sundays after church services – where families can travel together to vote with the flexibility from a work or school schedule that middle class Americans typically cannot afford to alter. Senator Paul and the RNC know this, and Republicans have openly admitted that the purpose of these laws is to block Democratic voters from the polls.
Because, if you can't win the game fair and square, changing the rules is your only option.
These days, with his extensive travel schedule, it is clear that Mr. Paul is more preoccupied with his presidential aspirations than the business of representing his constituents in Congress – let alone all Americans as he wishes to do. Never mind his crusading opposition to the Affordable Care Act that over one million Tennesseans have already benefitted from, or how badly Tennessee's poor children would be hurt by his wanting to close the Department of Education.
Though this then begs the question – who do Republicans like Rand Paul really represent?
Certainly not any of the hardworking people in Memphis.