A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Bill Straub: Mitch McConnell seems a little confused about his civil rights record; one way to correct it


I honestly believe that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell fully realizes that African-American voters are as American as the 4th of July and that a recent slip-up indicating he thinks otherwise is a mind blip for a man quickly approaching his 80th birthday.

I also believe, even more fervently, that the Louisville lawmaker’s record on civil rights is becoming a horror story, that he has shown little regard or empathy for the struggles of African-Americans or other minority groups, that he uses them as pawns in his ruthless pursuit of political power, and his embarrassing defense of his verbatim words, approaching the old some-of-my-best-friend-are-Negroes standard, is nothing less than despicable.

Last week, after leading the Republican charge against a pair of bills intended to, among other things, protect African-American voting rights, which are taking a terrible and unjust mauling in several states, McConnell sought to rationalize his indefensible actions by insisting the proposed protections were unnecessary.

The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com

“The concern is misplaced, because if you look at the statistics, African-American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans,” McConnell told reporters after launching a filibuster that blocked the Senate from so much as debating the measures.

Parse the statement and it’s not illogical to conclude that McConnell believes Black voters aren’t real Americans.

Suffice to say McConnell has taken a rhetorical beating for his ill-considered statement. Charles Booker, the former Democratic state senator from Louisville, an African-American looking to unseat Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, in the fall, said, “I need you to understand that this is who Mitch McConnell is. Being Black doesn’t make you less of an American, no matter what this craven man thinks.”

Fair enough. McConnell’s concern for Black voters extends only as far as how they will impact on the next election while, on the other hand, as he said at the Aspen Institute in 2015, “my party does really good with white people, and I’m proud of that.”

But he’s not Roger Taney. He doesn’t necessarily oppose African-Americans voting. He just doesn’t want to make it as easy for them to exercise the franchise as simply as White folks.

Anyway, rather than apologize and acknowledge that what he said was odious though unintended, McConnell took offense that anyone would view him as anything but the second coming of Frederick Douglas (who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice).

“This outrageous mischaracterization of my record as a result of leaving one word out inadvertently the other day, which I just now supplied to you, is deeply offensive,” he said in Louisville last Friday.

That “record,” it should be noted, includes a zero and a grade of F from a coalition of civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Urban League, that issued a legislative scorecard this year. To be fair, McConnell’s civil rights record, according to the NAACP, was much better during the 115th Congress, covering the period from January 2017 to January 2019. When Mitch sided with the nation’s leading civil rights organization a whopping 13 percent of the time. Of course, sadly, he still got an F.

As proof of his civil rights bona fides, McConnell noted that, “I was there for Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in the audience. When I was a student at U of L, I helped organize the March on Frankfort, the first state public accommodation law. Thanks to my role model, John Sherman Cooper, I was actually there when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act in the Capitol in 1965.”

Now, while that is all very nice, attending a function where historic civil rights landmarks are achieved doesn’t exactly make you W.E.B. DuBois. I mean, I’m a New York Mets fan, God help me, and I attended several games in 1986 when they won the World Series. I didn’t receive a championship ring.

And then there’s the old I-hired-and-supported-Black-people-so-how-can-I-possibly-be-a-racist defense, centered particularly around Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, an African-American and first-class sycophant who reportedly wants to replace ol’ Mitch once he retires, if ever.

“We have a new attorney general of Kentucky,” McConnell said. “He was a McConnell scholar at University of Louisville. I think he would confirm with you that I recruited him to run, supported him, and am proud of him. I have had African- American speechwriters, schedulers, office managers over the years.”

Interesting historic fact: Did you know that Strom Thurmond, former governor of South Carolina, a Dixiecrat presidential candidate in 1948 and U.S. Senator who was so racist that one of McConnell’s predecessors as Republican leader, Trent Lott, of Mississippi, was forced out of his job for speaking admirably about the old, bigoted coot, had a Black Senate staffer named Thomas Moss who informed him about issues related to African-Americans?

The late Sen. Jesse Helms, R-NC, who was every bit the racist Thurmond was, often cited the Black members on his staff to prove just what a sweetheart he really was.

Nope, it doesn’t cut the mustard.

McConnell’s voting record offers a mixed bag on civil rights. He has in the past, for instance, supported an extension of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But his recent actions have dampened any goodwill he could have accumulated over the years.

There’s no denying that his record has become less empathetic as it regards African-Americans. In April 2018, for instance, the Senate, while still under Republican control, passed 51-47 legislation repealing a guidance issued by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regarding auto lenders’ responsibility toward avoiding discriminatory lending practices.

McConnell voted to repeal the guidance, raising a question about why folks of any color shouldn’t be treated fairly in getting auto loans.

Then there was the 2017 debate over former President Donald J. Trump’s (OMG) nomination of then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, to serve as attorney general. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, sought on the Senate floor to read a letter composed by Coretta Scott King, widow of martyred civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, in which she excoriated Sessions’ record when he was nominated to a federal judgeship in the 1980s.

“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge,” King wrote. “From his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights law, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness, and judgment to be a federal judge.”

McConnell blocked Warren from proceeding, asserting that the content violated chamber rules prohibiting one senator from impugning the integrity of another senator, regardless of how big a racist he might be. McConnell then voted in favor of Sessions’ successful nomination for attorney general, a move that even Trump eventually realized was a mistake.

But nothing compares to his recent actions blocking debate – not a vote, but debate – over the John R.  Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the For the People Act.

A little, unsolicited advice Mitch: If you don’t want to be accused of racism, there’s a way to do it.


Related Posts

3 Comments

  1. Richard says:

    If you are looking for verbal slip ups, look no further than the current occupier of the white house, who had this to say about Barack Obama in 2007: “The first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean.”

    In 2006, Biden said, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”

    In 2010, Biden eulogized Sen. Robert Byrd, a former Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan, saying he was “one of my mentors” and that “the Senate is a lesser place for his going.”

    Think if McConnell would have made any of these remarks. The media would certainly not have left it alone, like they did for Biden. Talk of impeachment would likely have occurred.

    • Willie says:

      Richard, shhh, don’t point those things out. Bill is very selective in what he wants to reveal in his columns in an attempt to hide truths.

    • J says:

      Thing is, people know Biden well enough to know that he’s not attacking people personally and creating hostility and division between Americans.

      In contrast, when Trump spoke, he was almost always personally attacking people he disagreed with and causing chaos around the country. We’re much better off with a functioning democracy than with people who lie about election results and attack the Capitol, attempting to interfere with Congress, and threatening to kill the Vice-President.

Reply to Richard Cancel Reply