Black Republicans Lament Party's Forgotten Role in Civil Rights Movement

Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, right, greets Wade Henderson, left, CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Robert Brown, CEO of B&C Associates, during a luncheon at RNC headquarters to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Aug. 26, 2013, in Washington. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

When Republicans planned a gathering to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, they weren't initially sure who would show up.

With most lawmakers out of town and Washington full of Democratic-leaning activists here to mark the historic week at the Lincoln Memorial, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus acknowledged at the luncheon on Capitol Hill today that it was a risk, but they proceeded anyway.

"You can't make a sale if you don't show up and ask for an order," said Priebus, who has pushed for the party to reach out more to minority voters, including African-Americans.

In the end, dozens of civil rights leaders, African-Americans, Democrats and Republicans gathered at the Capitol Hill Club.

And for Priebus, it was likely something of a relief.

Of late, his efforts to expand the party's reach to minority voters has been hampered by incidents such as an Illinois Republican Party official using racist and sexist remarks to discount a black Republican candidate in the state or former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's call for Hispanic voters to "self-deport."

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Democrats are quick to suggest that the Republican Party is out of touch with minority voters, despite Priebus' efforts to ramp up outreach to minority communities.

"This is just a complete and total blessing to our party," Preibus said. "In this room it's not 100 percent Republican. I also know that a few Democrats came up to me and said, 'You know what? We're supporting this because if the Republican Party is not going to fight like crazy for every single vote in this country … is not going to fight like crazy for the African-American vote, then the other side is just going to take it for granted.'"

For many African-Americans gathered, it was a reminder that the Republican Party - the party of Abraham Lincoln - wasn't as estranged from the civil rights movement as some of the more official commemoration events would make it seem.

On Saturday, at a National Action Network rally and march at the Lincoln Memorial, speaker after speaker, nearly all of them Democrats, took to the podium to lay out the unfinished business of King's work.

"It's a movement that had its roots in the black community and in the Republican community," Ada Fisher, a Republican National committeewoman from North Carolina, who is African-American, told ABC News. "Most people don't talk about the fact that Martin Luther King was a Republican."

Furthermore, Fisher lamented that the commemoration events sought to merge racial equality issues with other fights.

"I was very disappointed when I saw parts of it on the TV, because this is not the same as gay rights and immigration rights - it's two different things," she said. "Where we mix these up it dilutes what people are trying to do."

For black Republicans, the merging of the civil rights community with a broader progressive or liberal agenda is a source of frustration.

Raising the minimum wage, which many Republican-leaning economists oppose; combating voter suppression, which many Republicans doesn't believe is happening; and addressing lingering tensions represented by the killing of the black teen Trayvon Martin were at the top of the agenda at Saturday's event.

Former Rep. Allen West, a black Republican from Florida, said at the commemoration luncheon today that the speakers at Saturday's rally all "missed the mark."

He said the Republican Party should be focused on the essence civil rights message championed by the vanguards of the movement in the 1960s and earlier: the economy.

"I will fault the Republican Party," West told a few reporters today. "We're not good messengers but we have a good message."

"If you go back and you read Booker T. Washington's writing and his fundamental principles of education, entrepreneurship and self-reliance, that's what we need to be promoting," West said. "That's why Booker T. Washington is really your first black conservative."