WASHINGTON — Rick Perry says Republicans have to accept that the government still needs to play a role in erasing the legacy of slavery and segregation for black families in America, even if that means walking back the focus on state's rights that were the central planks of his last campaign for president.
In a remarkable speech at National Press Club, Perry distanced himself from his past rhetoric — and book — praising the 10th Amendment and made a direct appeal to his party to rethink an approach to black voters he said often leaves them at a distance from the GOP.
"I know Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African Americans. Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 ran against Lyndon Johnson, who was a champion for civil rights," Perry said. "They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He felt parts of it were unconstitutional. States supporting segregation in the South, they cited states' rights as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table."
The years of states' rights messaging have squandered the Republican's once close relationship with black voters, especially in the south, Perry said.
"For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote because we found we didn't need it to win. But when we gave up trying to win the support of African Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity for all," Perry said. "It's time for us once again to reclaim our heritage as the only party in our country founded on the principle of freedom for African Americans."
Perry reaffirmed his support for the 10th Amendment, but said his focus on it does not mean he doesn't support federal government efforts to mitigate the lasting effects on history for black families.
At times, Perry said, he may have gone too far when talking about "states rights," often seen by black Americans as a code for racial division.
"There has been and there will continue to be an important and a legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing civil rights. Too often, we Republicans — me included — have emphasized our message on the 10th Amendment but not our message on the 14th, an amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the great contributions of the Republican Party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery," Perry said.
Perry opened the speech with a long, detailed, and highly graphic retelling of the 1916 torture and murder of Jesse Washington, a young black man accused of raping a white woman, by a white lynch mob in Waco, Texas. Perry said the retelling, which made some in the audience visibly uncomfortable, was necessary for Texas to understand its history of often violent racial division.
"Even today, we Texans struggle to talk about what happened to Jesse Washington. We don't want to believe that our great state could ever have been the scene of such unimaginable horror," he said. "But it is an episode in our history that we cannot ignore. It is an episode that we have an obligation to transcend."
When it came to hot-button policy issues for black voters in America, today Perry still sided with the idea that states should make their own choices over federal law. He said South Carolina should make its own choice about the Confederate flag, and didn't weigh in on what that choice should be. Perry again noted the efforts to ban Confederate flag license plates while he was governor, but didn't mention his past public support for Confederate symbols in the late 1990s.
On voter ID laws, which many black advocates and Democrats have rejected as racially unjust, Perry again stood up for the states' right to run elections as they choose.
"There are a host of different photo IDs that you can use so that you can vote, but keeping that from being fraudulently used means as I go through TSA to fly from here to New Hampshire in the morning, they are going to want to see my photo ID," Perry said. "And I think if it is important enough for the federal government to require a photo ID, that of the state wants to have a photo ID to protect that precious right of voting and make sure it is not fraudulently used, I think that is quite all right for the states to do that."
Perry said the Republican message to black voters should focus on economics and criminal justice. Citing his own record leading sweeping changes to the legal system in Texas heralded by criminal justice advocates on the right and left, Perry said it was time for the federal government to adopt a new approach to nonviolent offenders.
"We can reform the federal sentencing laws, just as we have done at the state level to ensure more young people have a real shot at life, and we can do so while keeping our low income communities safe from crime as well," he said.
Marijuana legalization — a policy favored by many opponents of the war on drugs — appeared to be off the table as well, at least at the federal level.
"From time to time a state will make a mistake, and they will pay a price for that," Perry said. "When I read [that quote Perry said came from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis], I think about Colorado today. You know, but I will defend Colorado's right to be wrong."
Winning the black vote back for Republicans means adopting an approach toward criminal justice, taxes and entitlements similar to the one Perry oversaw in Texas, he said.
Perry said reforms to welfare programs and new tax credits and lower taxes overall can create greater income opportunity for black Americans. Proving that Republican policies can reduce the incarceration rate and raise the graduation rate for young black men will go a long way in rebuilding the shattered trust between the GOP and black voters, Perry said.
"I do not think there is more powerful way I can say to an African American that I gave her child the opportunity to succeed because we let them graduate from high school," Perry said. "What a powerful message that you live in the state where the number one high school graduation rate is. That is a powerful message. Oh, by the way, we let you keep more of your money, too. That is a powerful, powerful message."