Five decades before he became Senate majority leader, 23-year-old Mitch McConnell was visiting Washington, D.C., and swung by to see his hero and former boss, U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky.
Cooper, a Republican who helped ensure the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed and whose 20-year tenure in Congress McConnell would one day eclipse, got the future senator to walk with him.
He led McConnell to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, where the pair watched President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"I was overwhelmed to witness such a moment in history, knowing that majorities in both parties voted for the bill," McConnell — who had also witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech — wrote in his 2016 memoir, "The Long Game."
Fifty-five years later, the Louisville Republican rules the Senate and controls what legislation is allowed to come up for a vote. That gives him immense power over the fate of a plan to replace part of the Voting Rights Act the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated in 2013, as well as over what happens to other proposals that impact the lives of Black Americans.
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Civil rights advocates and Democrats are criticizing McConnell for refusing to let senators vote on a bill that effectively would restore the Voting Rights Act's requirement that places with a history of discrimination must get the U.S. government's approval before changing their election procedures.
The pressure on him to take action has grown since the July death of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat and civil rights icon whom McConnell also praised as a hero. Lewis supported the proposal, which now bears his name: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
McConnell is up for reelection in November, and his record on civil rights and other issues that impact Black Americans during his congressional career is under scrutiny as anti-racism protests persist in his home state and across the nation.
In an interview with The Courier Journal, McConnell said he’s a longtime opponent of racial discrimination and has demonstrated that since his early days as a public official.
He also emphasized that the Voting Rights Act remains the law of the land. “It’s still intact,” he said.
But board member K.A. Owens of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression contended the Supreme Court "kind of eviscerated" the Voting Rights Act and said McConnell could help repair that damage.
"The United States has a long way to go in producing a just society for all people," Owens said. "And Sen. McConnell, with his position as majority leader in the Senate — people feel that there’s more he can do."
McConnell, now 78, grew up in Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky when segregation was legal. He credits his parents with instilling in him a belief in civil rights, despite their upbringing in the South.
"From an early age, they'd taught me that everyone deserved equal opportunities and the right to vote," he wrote in his memoir.
Today, McConnell maintains those values have been evident during his tenure on Capitol Hill.
"I am proud of my record on race relations and civil rights and I have worked throughout my career to help close the gap so every Kentuckian can enjoy the promise of America’s founding principles," he told The Courier Journal in a statement.
His staff provided examples of his accomplishments, including the First Step Act, a 2018 law supported by civil rights groups like the National Urban League that was intended to help reduce mass incarceration by, for example, granting judges more discretion when they sentence people for nonviolent drug crimes.
McConnell let the Senate vote on the bipartisan proposal, and supported it himself, but only after he faced public pressure to do so, including from President Donald Trump. He allowed the bill to advance at Trump's request and after some revisions were made to it.
Louisville NAACP President and national NAACP board member Raoul Cunningham stressed that the Civil Rights Legislative Report Card, which the NAACP regularly releases, consistently has given McConnell failing grades over the years.
"There’s no way he can be seen as a supporter of civil rights when the civil rights report card constantly has given him an 'F' his entire tenure in the Senate," Cunningham said.
Cunningham, who previously worked for the incumbent Democrat whom McConnell defeated in 1984 in his first bid for the Senate, said the long-term movement for civil rights for Black Americans has evolved.
Instead of segregation, Cunningham said the focus now is on problems like recent voter suppression efforts and a lack of equal justice.
"And I don’t see where McConnell can stand and say he supports civil rights today," he said.
But OJ Oleka, who used to work in Kentucky politics and recently co-founded a bipartisan coalition called AntiRacismKY that's devoted to developing policies that combat institutional racism at the local and state level, said he thinks McConnell has a strong record on civil rights.
"From my vantage point as a Republican — as a Black Republican — I think the leader has been good on these things," he said. "While it’s easy to make the leader a boogeyman, I just don’t think he is one."
Oleka noted that Republicans and Democrats often disagree on what they consider good policies that address inequality. "But it doesn't mean that either wants a different outcome," he said.
Here's a deeper look at McConnell's sometimes complicated history with civil rights and other key issues that resonate with Black Americans:
Apartheid and affirmative action
McConnell was first elected to the Senate in November 1984. And within his first two years in office, he bucked then-President Ronald Reagan by co-sponsoring legislation to put economic sanctions on the South African government because of its racist apartheid regime.
McConnell's bill didn't pass, but he later voted with a majority of Congress to override Reagan's veto of a similar proposal for South African sanctions.
Several years later, he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which expanded protections against employment discrimination based on race and other characteristics.
However, McConnell voted against an earlier version of the proposal, the Civil Rights Act of 1990, which then-President George H.W. Bush vetoed before eventually signing the 1991 version.
Civil rights groups praised the 1991 law, which also had McConnell's support. But in the mid-'90s, they clashed with the Kentucky senator during a debate over affirmative action.
McConnell co-sponsored the Civil Rights Act of 1997, which would have banned both discrimination and preferential treatment in federal contracting and employment based on race and other characteristics.
"Simply put, the federal government should not decide who gets the contract or who gets the job based on race and gender," he said at the time. "Discrimination by any other name is still discrimination."
Cunningham, of the Louisville NAACP, said affirmative action partly was designed to try to make up for past acts of discrimination and is something he still supports.
“I don't think there can be any question that discrimination denied progress that African Americans could have made," he said.
In the end, the Civil Rights Act of 1997 didn’t become law.
Election reforms and voter ID laws
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited racial discrimination at the ballot box and put restrictions in place designed to prevent state and local governments from adopting laws and taking actions to make it harder for Black Americans to vote — something many governments across the U.S., especially in the South, did for decades with impunity.
Since then, election reforms have periodically come up for consideration in Congress, and McConnell has often been a key figure in those debates.
In the early '90s, he opposed a "motor voter" bill proposed by Kentucky's senior senator at the time, Democrat Wendell Ford, that was designed to make it easier for people to register to vote by letting them do it by mail or while getting their driver's license or visiting government offices that provide services related to public assistance programs.
Republicans in Congress, including McConnell, largely opposed the bill and said it would put an unfair financial burden on state and local governments and potentially would encourage voter fraud.
McConnell led the effort to defeat the legislation and dismissed Democrats' arguments that it was needed to boost voter turnout, The New York Times reported in 1992. He said low turnout shows voters are content with their representation and doubted the bill would lead to higher turnouts.
The proposal eventually became law: the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
Nearly 10 years later, McConnell was once again involved in a debate over election reform as Congress mulled what to do in the wake of the contentious 2000 election, which was marred by serious problems at Florida’s ballot boxes.
He co-authored a bipartisan bill, the Help America Vote Act, that became law.
It set new standards for elections, encouraged efforts to make the process more accessible to people with disabilities or limited English proficiency and provided funds to help states upgrade their voting machines.
Lisa Cylar Barrett, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s director of policy, said the Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, generally has been viewed as a positive law by civil rights organizations.
A couple of years after HAVA was enacted, the NAACP honored McConnell as a "Quarterback" in 2004 because of his help in securing a $1 billion increase in federal funding for election reform.
"I am honored that the NAACP recognized my efforts to help make our elections more accurate, more accessible and more honest," McConnell said in a news release that year.
In recent years, debates about voter suppression often have focused on laws that require people to show identification to vote.
Proponents say they protect against voter fraud, while civil rights groups warn they make it harder for Black Americans, in particular, to vote because many of them lack the often limited forms of ID such laws demand.
Barrett said the "myth that there's rampant voter fraud has been disproven," with studies verifying that it rarely happens.
McConnell is a longtime supporter of voter ID rules, and he and other Republicans pushed for the inclusion of some such requirements in the HAVA law.
"If they provide some identification, we can eliminate dead people and dogs from the rolls," McConnell said, per a 2002 Associated Press article. "I don't think that's asking too much."
In the end, Republicans and Democrats in Congress compromised on a version of the law that required new voters who registered to vote by mail to provide some form of ID to cast a ballot.
Today, voter ID laws have been approved in many states. Kentucky's Republican-controlled legislature passed one this year, too.
A spokesperson for McConnell said he is "a staunch supporter of Kentuckians being in charge of the Commonwealth’s elections" and noted that Kentucky voters chose Secretary of State Michael Adams — whose support for voter ID rules was central to his campaign — to represent them.
The Voting Rights Act
The controversy over the Voting Rights Act centers on its pre-clearance provisions, which force states and localities with a history of voter suppression to obtain federal permission before they can change how their elections work.
In 2013, the Supreme Court axed the part of the law that determined which places need that advance approval because it said the decades-old formula was outdated. Without a formula, the pre-clearance requirement is essentially neutralized.
In an interview with The Courier Journal, McConnell stressed that the historic legislation persists.
"What the Supreme Court struck down was the pre-clearance part of the Voting Rights Act that applied only to some states but not to others," he said. "But make no mistake about it: The Voting Rights Act is still the law."
McConnell actually voted to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act, including the pre-clearance provisions, in 2006.
But he consistently has opposed the idea of establishing a new formula to replace the one the Supreme Court invalidated. And he's resisting pressure to clear a path for the latest plan to do that: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
When asked if he intends to bring it up for a vote before the November election, he told The Courier Journal: "I don't think so."
Barrett, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said it's troubling that the bill can't even get a Senate hearing under McConnell's leadership.
Since the 2013 ruling, she said some states that used to be subject to pre-clearance made election changes the federal government previously rejected because they'd have a discriminatory impact.
People can still sue over discrimination under the Voting Rights Act, but she said litigation can be prohibitively expensive and typically only gets resolved after folks are hurt by unfair election processes.
McConnell recently dismissed concerns about modern voter suppression.
“There’s very little tangible evidence of this whole voter suppression nonsense that the Democrats are promoting,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “My prediction is African American voters will turn out in as large a percentage as whites, if not more so, all across the country.”
Elevating Black voices in government
Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron remembers when he initially crossed paths with McConnell, who has been a loyal, longstanding friend and mentor to him.
It happened back when Cameron — elected in November 2019 as the state's first Black attorney general — was applying for the McConnell Scholars Program at the University of Louisville, which provides scholarships to students through a center the senator co-founded.
"I grew up in a conservative household with parents who voted Republican, and so he was someone that I sort of looked up to as a leader within the Republican Party," Cameron told The Courier Journal. "And so it was very exciting to get to meet him for the first time."
Cameron went on to intern for the senator and eventually joined his staff as his legal counsel before becoming an elected official himself.
His work in D.C. gave him the opportunity to be there in person in 2015 when the Senate confirmed former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, the first Black woman to hold that position. McConnell voted for Lynch's nomination even though many of his Republican colleagues didn't.
"It was a powerful moment to be on the floor of the United States Senate," Cameron said.
Republican consultant Julia Crigler, who interned for McConnell alongside Cameron, said the majority leader has supported the advancement of people of color with his hiring choices and when using his power as a senator to confirm presidential nominees for important federal jobs.
For example, in addition to voting to confirm Lynch, McConnell also voted to confirm the first Black person to become secretary of state, Colin Powell, as well as the first Black woman to become secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
"He’s been a big proponent of diversity," Crigler said. "I really think a lot of times what gets overlooked is how he elevates minority voices even within his own office."
McConnell also has used his own voice to condemn racism and racist violence over the years.
For example, he co-sponsored a congressional resolution that condemned a violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
And a day after Trump said there were some "very fine people on both sides" of that event, where anti-racism protesters came out to oppose the white supremacists, McConnell issued a statement that made it clear where he stood: "There are no good neo-Nazis ..."
Tag-teaming with Trump on judges
Trump has widely and credibly been accused of racism over things he has done and said before and during his tenure in the Oval Office.
However, McConnell defended the president last year in the wake of criticism concerning a tweet Trump sent in which he suggested four Democratic congresswomen of color, three of whom were born in America, should "go back" to the countries they came from.
"The president is not a racist," McConnell told reporters at the time.
McConnell has worked closely with Trump to appoint a record number of judges to federal courts.
In fact, McConnell made that his top priority after the 2016 presidential election because it "could do the most to shape the nation in a constructive, enduring and conservative direction," according to his memoir.
To date, McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate have confirmed about 200 judges nominated by Trump, including two Supreme Court justices.
Those appointments have been praised by many in conservative circles but also have been criticized by some civil rights organizations.
Barrett, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said a number of judicial nominees the Senate has cleared hold extreme ideological views, particularly on civil rights issues.
"We continue to fight and work through the courts to advance and protect civil rights, but obviously we are concerned about, you know, what some of these appointments will mean for the advancement and protection of civil rights within the court system," she said.
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University of Louisville political science professor Dewey Clayton said he doesn't think McConnell necessarily looks at issues like judicial nominations and voting rights through a racial lens, focusing instead on what is best for his political party.
“McConnell is a Republican, and Republicans just see the role of government, in many instances, differently than Democrats do," he said.
As majority leader, Clayton said McConnell generally doesn't bring things up for a vote in the Senate unless he's sure they'll pass. He's a shrewd politician and is strategic about the positions he takes, which frustrates some people.
"I think sometimes McConnell takes particular stands on issues because he’s reading the tea leaves," Clayton said. "I do think in his heart of hearts, he probably still is very much a supporter of civil rights, but I don't think his actions currently always show that."
Reach reporter Morgan Watkins at email@example.com; Twitter: @morganwatkins26.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Election 2020: Mitch McConnell has complicated history on race