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Howard Students Question Rand Paul's Vision Of GOP

Rand Paul going to one of the top historically black colleges in the U.S. and trying to school students on who founded the NAACP?


Rand Paul going to one of the top historically black colleges in the U.S. and trying to make a case for his Republican Party as a historic and continuing defender of the civil rights of African-Americans?

Not boring.

And, judging from the reaction the Kentucky senator received Wednesday at Washington's Howard University, less than persuasive.

"I'm happy that he came, that he reached out," said Howard grad Dawn Hay, 29. "But it felt like a plea."

And there were times it felt insulting, she said, if not intentionally.

Paul, a libertarian considered a potential 2016 presidential contender, forgot the name of the first popularly elected African-American senator in the U.S., who just happened to be Howard graduate Edward Brooke, a Republican who represented Massachusetts in the 1960s and '70s.

And he drew groans and guffaws when he asked those in the crowded auditorium if they knew that black Republicans founded the NAACP in the early 1900s.

"We know our history," Hay said of Paul's question. "This is now; that was in the past."

That illustrated Paul's significant hurdle Wednesday, making an intellectually defensible case to a largely black audience for the party of Lincoln that since the 1960s has been perceived by some as hostile to African-Americans.

He acknowledged it.

"How did the Republican Party, the party of the Great Emancipator, lose the trust and faith of an entire race?" he said, speaking with the aid of a teleprompter.

One of the many questions he took after the speech suggested one contemporary reason: Why, one Howard senior asked, have Republicans been aggressively pursuing more restrictive voting laws?

Paul, whose speech was briefly interrupted by hecklers who were forcibly removed, turned the question to literacy tests that Southern Democrats imposed before the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

He asked how anyone could liken current efforts to require that citizens present photo identification at polling places with "the horror of what happened in the South."

Paul asserted that he has never wavered in his support for the Civil Rights Act, though in past interviews, and on Wednesday, he expressed squeamishness with extending protections beyond "public domains" and to the private sector.

While his retelling of the civil rights movement through the lens of a dated Republicanism felt clangorous, Paul drew more sympathy and occasional applause when he turned to his own pet issues — support for school choice, noninterventionist foreign policy, counseling instead of prison for first-time drug offenders, and opposition to federal minimum sentencing guidelines.

"Some argue, with evidence, that our drug laws are biased — that they are the new Jim Crow," he said. "But to simply be against them for that reason misses a larger point. They are unfair to everyone, largely because of the one-size-fits-all federal mandatory sentences."

And, finally, he made his case for "free markets," dinging Democrats a la Mitt Romney as the party of giveaways that have not benefited African-Americans in the long run.

"Democrats still promise unlimited federal assistance, and Republicans promise free markets, low taxes and less regulations that we believe will create more jobs," he said, noting that poverty in recent years has become more entrenched, and black unemployment is double that of whites.

It was an interesting outing for Paul, and one that Hay, the Howard graduate, said will encourage her to "pay more attention" to him.

Chinedu Okpala, 21, a senior economics major at Howard, said that Paul didn't choose "the most appropriate, most effective message" in rehashing Republican history that dates way back in time.

But he acknowledged the first-term senator's challenge.

"African-Americans are born with hatred of everything outside the Democratic Party, with very closed eyes," said Okpala, who is African-American. "At least he put in the effort and came here, and that counts for something."

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Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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