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Rand Paul Explains Black History to Black People

In a speech at Howard University, the Kentucky senator tried to change his record on the Civil Rights Act and explained to an African American audience all the great things the GOP has done for them.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md., in March 2013.
Photo Credit: © Jenny Warburg


WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If, in his speech to the students of the historically black Howard University on Wednesday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., sought to demonstrate he was down with the concerns of African Americans, his approach left a bit to be desired.

He explained black history to black people. He suggested that he was brave to have shown up. He quoted a  poem that is said to be the lament of a sexually frustrated middle-aged man.

Paul went on to deny killing budget autonomy for the District of Columbia, despite the three poison-pill amendments he added to the bill. During the question-and-answer period, he chided a young voting rights activist for comparing voter ID laws to the obstructions African Americans faced at the polls during Jim Crow. And he said he had nothing against the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- despite being on record as opposing the provision that desegregated the lunch counters that were occupied at great peril by the Freedom Riders who fought the South's Jim Crow laws. 

In short, Rand Paul delivered a pretty embarrassing performance, but perhaps not in ways that the audience for whom his speech I believe his speech was intended -- Republican primary voters -- would notice.

Not that all was lost for Paul amid the audience in the auditorium of Howard's School of Business: his proposals for ending the mandatory minimum sentences that have led to the incarceration of massive numbers of African Americans for non-violent offenses, and against military intervention abroad, were well-received.

Charity Begins at Home

In apparent preparation for the presidential bid he's contemplating, Paul addressed a polite but skeptical audience in a speech that was part damage-control, part condescending history lesson and part appeal to African-Americans to embrace his neo-libertarian philosophy.

The damage Paul needs to control is that he did to himself when he went public during his successful 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate with his true feelings about the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- specifically the part that integrated lunch counters, restaurants, and other privately-owned establishments that are open to the public, which, he said, he opposed. But in his speech to the largely African-American audience at Howard, Paul suggested that his position had been "twist[ed] and distort[ed]" by his "political enemies."

(Judge for yourself: Here's Paul on The Rachel Maddow Show in May 2010.)

Just a couple of minutes into his speech, Paul referred to the controversy, attempting to frame it with a T.S. Eliot poem, " The Love Song of J. Alfred Prusock," in ways I found incomprehensible:

When I think of how political enemies often twist and distort my positions I think again of Eliot's words, "when I am pinned and wriggling on the wall," how should I presume? And here I am today at Howard, a historically black college; here I am, a guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act. That didn't always go so well for me. Some have said that I'm either brave or crazy to be here today.

(Here I might offer a word to my white brothers: Acting as if it's an act of courage to appear before an audience of black people might be, well, a bit presumptuous.)

When challenged on his Civil Rights Act decision during the question-and-answer session following his speech, Paul artfully asserted that he never voiced opposition to the landmark legislation that ended Jim Crow, saying:

I've never been against the Civil Rights Act, ever. And I continue to be for the Civil Rights Act...There was a long interview that had a long extended conversation about the ramifications beyond which -- and I have been concerned about certain portions of the Civil Rights they are now being applied to smoking, menus -- you know, listing calories and things on menus -- and so I do question some of the ramifications in the extensions, but I never questioned the Civil Rights Act, and have never come out in opposition to the Civil Rights Act, nor have I offered anything to alter the Civil Rights Act, so your characterization is incorrect.

"Obfuscation would be the charitable word" for that answer, said Professor Greg Carr, chair of Howard's Afro-American Studies Department, in an interview with AlterNet. "I think he would have scored more points if indeed he [showed he] was coming here for a conversation, by saying: ‘These are some of the things I've said in the past, and I don't know that I would necessarily reconsider them, but let me explain to you why I said those things.'"

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