Behind Cantor's Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama

Lawmakers and other gather for a wreath laying ceremony at the Civil Rights Memorial at the Souther Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., Saturday, March 2, 2013. The Faith and Politics Institute sponsored the event. Front row from left: U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., Sen. Kay Hagan, D-NC., U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.  (National Journal)

Laying a wreath during a moving ceremony at a Civil Rights Memorial where House Majority Leader Eric Cantor locked arms with Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer and held hands Rep. John Lewis -- that's not a picturethat is common in highly partisan Washington.

Cantor, along with Hoyer and Lewis, joined more than 30 members of the House and Senate on the annual bipartisan Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage to Alabama over the weekend, led by Lewis and organized by the nonprofit Faith and Politics Institute. Cantor is the highest ranking Republican to have ever gone on the trip, a notable development at a time when the GOP is figuring out how to make inroads with minorities and how to expand its appeal.

"As human beings I think all of us, Democrat or Republican, need to experience the pilgrimage to Montgomery and Selma. And I think, as a Republican, I want us to be able to find areas where we can go forward together," Cantor said. "Really, it's the spirit of the weekend that I take, and with that, find together what we can do and what we can accomplish."

Cantor has recently been arguing that his party cares about everyday Americans and has solutions to their problems -- focusing on jobs and education reform. But the trip wasn't an out-of-the-blue foray for Cantor. Last year, he and Lewis led the effort to instruct the House historian to compile accounts of past and current House members involved with the civil rights movement. The first installation of the project launches today, on the anniversary of the voting rights march along the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where authorities attacked marchers, including Lewis.

On Sunday, pilgrimage participants, including Vice President Joe Biden, went to that bridge. Images from the attacks on marchers in 1965 helped create the momentum for passage of the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court is considering ruling against Section 5 of the law, which requires certain states (mostly in the South) to get "preclearance" from the Justice Department or a federal court before implementing changes in laws and regulations related to voting.

"A lot of us were struck by that irony, but clearly Sunday was a day of atonement and reconciliation, and really, acknowledgment of the movement," said Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell, whose Alabama Congressional district includes Selma.

Cantor said that the connection between the march in Selma and the court case was noted while on the trip. When asked whether the Voting Rights Act was still needed, he said, "I support the Voting Rights Act. I voted for it. We'll have to see what the Supreme Court does."

The bipartisan nature of the trip, which often includes family members (Cantor brought his son, Mikey), allows members of Congress to get to know each other outside of Washington, Sewell said.

She also had glowing praise for Cantor coming on trip, saying it was a "powerful testament" to him and showed "the significance that the fight for equality and justice is a bipartisan cause, it's not just a Republican or Democratic issue."

The trip even included a speech at the Alabama State Capitol by Cantor, not necessarily known for broad bipartisan gestures, about bringing that spirit of bipartisanship back to Washington.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be some break of sorts in the partisan wall in Washington. President Obama dined with a group of Senate Republicans last night, and he will be making trips to the Hill to speak with Republican and Democratic caucuses of both chambers.

"I welcome any and all of that," Cantor said of Obama's efforts. "I have always said we are ready and willing to engage with the White House and see how we can talk about those issues," he said. "But it's not just the fiscal issues that we're concerned about. Yes, we have big differences there... But there are other things that people face every day that need addressing."