MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Following a pledge to reach out to black voters, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist led a largely Republican group of senators through the South as they visited sites important to the 1960s civil rights movement (search).
Frist became leader of the Senate when then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was ousted after he appeared to praise Strom Thurmond's pro-segregation presidential campaign in 1948.
Frist said he hopes the trip will be "a catalyst that will make us a better United States Senate.
"I grew up in the South, but this will be a learning experience for me. I was only 10 or 11 years old when this happened," said Frist, a Republican from Tennessee.
Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, is serving as tour guide during the three-day trip, which also includes stops in Selma, Birmingham and Nashville, Tenn.
"The civil rights movement transcends party," Lewis said. "It's good to have Republican senators here; they will be able to go back and take a message to the president and their colleagues."
One of the first stops Friday was the Rosa Parks Museum (search) at Troy State University Montgomery. The museum documents how the city's bus boycott began after Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.
Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who remembered going to school on segregated buses as a young boy in Camden, said he was moved by the exhibits.
"I think Alabama has done a pretty good job of wrestling with its past," Sessions said. "We could do better, and these kinds of things help."
After Lewis spoke from the pulpit at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (search) served as pastor while leading the boycott, the senators walked silently to the Civil Rights Memorial and sang "We Shall Overcome."
The trip was organized by the Faith and Politics Institute (search), a Washington-based nonprofit that seeks to build bridges between people of different backgrounds.
GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who went last year and urged others to go this time, said Republicans could win more black support, since blacks tend to be conservative when it comes to social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
An analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies (search), a think tank focused on black issues, said Republicans want to win over minorities because black and Hispanic populations are growing much more quickly than white Americans.
"In the longer term it does represent a problem for the Republican Party," said analyst David Bositis.
However, Bositis disagreed with the view that the GOP could easily broaden its base among black voters. President Bush received less than 10 percent of the black vote in 2000.
"They don't have a particularly impressive record in terms of representing black interests," Bositis said, citing Bush's opposition to affirmative action at the University of Michigan and the recess appointment of Judge Charles Pickering (search), who Democrats accused of supporting segregation as a young man.
Bositis said Republicans "have felt increasingly comfortable making references to Martin Luther King and the events of the civil rights movement, mainly because they have taken place in the distant past."
Frist called that criticism unfair and said that this week he introduced legislation to improve minorities' access to quality health care. He also pushed a bill to restore the Washington home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The Republican senators on the trip were Sam Brownback of Kansas, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Mike DeWine of Ohio, George Allen of Virginia, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Sessions.
Jon Corzine of New Jersey was the only Democratic senator on the trip.
Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee planned to join the group Sunday in Nashville, site of lunch counter sit-in protests against segregation.
Corporate sponsors helped foot the bill for the senators' trip.