WASHINGTON – The forced resignation of the Senate's GOP leader over racially insensitive remarks and the departure of the only black Republican in Congress has black conservatives lecturing party leaders that the GOP "cannot be lily white any longer."
Armstrong Williams, the conservative commentator who organized a two-hour meeting Monday at Republican National Committee headquarters, stressed afterward that the party must increase its efforts to prove its commitment to blacks, both as voters and candidates.
Williams, a former aide to retired Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was among more than a dozen black conservatives who met with RNC Chairman Marc Racicot and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to discuss how the GOP can put more blacks in office and increase its standing among minorities.
"The Republican Party has to realize that it cannot be lily white any longer," Williams said. "Change must come about, and it must start within our house. And we were here today to do some house cleaning."
He said the party must first change the way it looks from the grass roots up to through the state level before it can make its policies more applicable and sensitive to minorities.
"It starts with the faces," Williams said.
Frist was chosen to replace Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott as Senate Republican leader after a storm of protest over Lott's praise last month of Thurmond's pro-segregation presidential campaign in 1948.
Acknowledging that his party could do more to improve its image among minorities, Racicot said the RNC was prepared to increase resources to support black candidates and win minority votes. But he added that blacks shouldn't expect results overnight.
"We're not going to turn around 40 years of history in two years," Racicot said. "We've got some miles to go before we sleep."
Williams has organized a similar meeting Jan. 28 with new House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, and other GOP leaders in the House.
With the departure of former Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, there is not a single black Republican in either the 100-member Senate or 435-member House. There are 37 black Democrats in the House but none in the Senate.
Watts, a former football star at the University of Oklahoma, chose not to seek re-election last year. He held the fourth-ranking position in the House GOP hierarchy as the party's conference chairman for half of his eight years in Congress.
Despite the title, Watts at times had expressed dismay at the duties he was given. He supported Lott immediately after the furor over Lott's remarks erupted but tempered it later as pressure built on Republicans to find a new Senate leader.
Also attending Monday's meeting were two black Bush administration officials, Alphonso Jackson of the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Leo Mackay of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
President Bush may be about to step into the politically explosive affirmative action debate. White House and Justice Department lawyers, acting on guidance from the president himself, are drafting a proposed Supreme Court brief arguing against programs that gave black and Hispanic students an edge when applying to the University of Michigan and its law school, three senior administration officials said Monday night on condition of anonymity.
After the meeting Monday at RNC headquarters, Frist said, "We have a tremendous opportunity to look ahead for positive change in race relations."
Democrats were quick to play down the significance of the session.
"Since 1980, the GOP has attempted a 'minority outreach' program in every presidential cycle, and their efforts have always failed," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said in a statement.