The Republican National Committee held its third annual RNC Black Republican Trailblazers awards on Wednesday. The theme of this year's event was paying homage to the achievements of black Republicans past and present.
The program was held at The Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., and marked the historic elections of Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, Utah's Rep. Mia Love, and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. Together, they make up the largest class of black Republicans in Congress since Reconstruction.
The Trailblazers gala comes at a critical time for a Republican Party, as it used the event as both a showcase for the party's black talent and a continuation of its effort to expand its reach to communities of color.
From the outset, the RNC got all of the atmospherics right. There was a gospel choir on stage singing what is commonly referred to as the Black National Anthem: "Lift Every Voice and Sing." The show was emceed by black television personality Roland Martin and conservative pundit Tara Setmayer Love and — of course — the black preacher to offer prayer before the start of the banquet.
For the room full of black conservatives, this was indeed a celebration — a tribute to Republican breakthroughs. The first African-American elected to the Senate in the 20th century, Edward Brooke III of Massachusetts, was honored. In a video tribute to Brooke, the late senator proclaimed: "I don't want you to vote against me because I'm black, and I don't want you to vote for me because I'm black. I want you to vote for me because you believe I can do the job. And I can do it better than the other candidate."
The tributes moved to present-day trailblazers — the three current lawmakers being honored.
Rep. Hurd is the first black Republican from Texas.
"When I was 22 years old, I started in the CIA and I moved to Washington D.C. ... and I never would have thought I'd be standing on this stage being mentioned in the same sentences as some of these luminaries we've addressed today," Hurd said.
While three black Republicans may not seem like many, it is a sign of progress for the GOP. Back in 2012, only 6 percent of African-Americans voted for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
Since the last presidential election, the RNC has poured millions into voter engagement efforts with communities of color. The party saw modest, but important, gains with black voters in last fall's midterms.
Sen. Scott said Republicans win the battle of ideas when they are willing to leave their comfort zones.
"We, as members of the conservative party, owe it to America to go to every single corner of the country. To go into every single neighborhood, not to invite them out, but to lead our ideas in," Scott said.
Rep. Love — the only black Republican woman ever elected to Congress — says there is still much work to do.
"We need to remove ourselves from a different kind of slavery, and what I'm talking about is the kind of slavery that makes us dependent on people in power," Love said.
Leah Wright Rigueur, author of The Loneliness of the Black Republican, says the Republican gains should be applauded. But, the Harvard professor adds, it's not just about reaching out to African-Americans. It's about changing the attitudes of people within the party so that Republicans can attract larger numbers of black voters.
"We're talking about 60 years, at minimum, of damage that the Republican Party needs to overcome. So that's not going to be undone in a matter of months or even in a matter of years. This is going to take a full-scale assault," Wright Rigueur says.
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, spoke to reporters ahead of the gala and vowed that as long as he's chairman, he's going to continue holding events like Trailblazers to show how diverse his party is.
"I know that I can't carpet the world in one or two years, but I do know that incrementally we can do better, and we're certainly going to do better than we did in 2012," Priebus said. "We have enough positives coming out of that beta test in 2014 to encourage us that what we're on the right track and we can't get off that track."