Paul devoted almost none of his speech Wednesday at the historically black college in Washington, D.C., to explaining the GOP's thorny relationship with black voters over the last fifty years, and most of it arguing that "the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights and voting rights." His history lecture focused almost entirely on the period before 1964, when the GOP began to champion the states rights arguments of southern whites. Echoing a popular conservative talking point, Paul repeatedly reminded the audience that Democrats passed Jim Crow laws in the south and that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, as were the first black legislators and the founders of the NAACP.
"Would everyone know here they were all Republicans?" he said at one point, referring to the NAACP's founders.
"Yes!" came the booming response from nearly the entire audience, who appeared offended Paul would even raise the question.
He drew laughs and jeers at another point for bungling the name of the first popularly elected black senator, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, whom he called "Edwin."
Thus went Paul's earnest, yet awkward, attempt at minority outreach at one of the nation's most prestigious black colleges.
As Rand Paul acknowledged in his speech, he may not be the most obvious choice to spearhead the GOP's outreach to African Americans. His first foray into national news came in 2010 when he criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for encroaching on property rights and suggested that ending segregation should have been left to the free market. His father, former Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), had an even more tortured history with race that included the publication of a series of inflammatory newsletters under his name, an issue that would follow him throughout his own presidential runs. But the younger Paul backed down soon after making the remarks in 2010 and ended up clarifying that he would have voted for the Civil Rights Act had he been in office at the time, despite his reservations about provisions banning discrimination by business.
"Here I am," he said early in his remarks at Howard. "A guy who once presumed to discuss a section of the Civil Rights Act."
Paul delved into the controversy at length, but insisted that it was a misunderstanding.
"I've never wavered in my support for civil rights or the Civil Rights Act," he said.
That does not really comport with his past statements. Or even his very next sentence, which was: "The dispute, if there is one, has always been about how much of the remedy should come under federal or state or private purview." He added that he was concerned about "ramifications of certain portions of the Civil Rights Act beyond race."
In the Q&A with Paul after his speech, questioners seemed surprised at Paul's account of his position. One pointed out he was on tape criticizing the Civil Rights Act in detail. Let's review those comments, which mostly came in an appearance on Rachel Maddow's show in 2010.
"Should we limit racists from speaking?" Paul said in that interview. "I don't want to be associated with those people, but I also don't want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that's one of the things that freedom requires is that we allow people to be boorish and uncivilized, but that doesn't mean we approve of it."
Maddow then asked him specifically about whether this meant the government shouldn't desegregate lunch counters, an area where Paul had previously complained about government overreach to a local paper.
"Well what it gets into then is if you decide that restaurants are publicly owned and not privately owned, then do you say that you should have the right to bring your gun into a restaurant even though the owner of the restaurant says 'well no, we don't want to have guns in here' the bar says 'we don't want to have guns in here because people might drink and start fighting and shoot each-other,'" he said. "Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?"
At one point during Paul's speech Wednesday, protestors took the stage with a banner reading "Howard University doesn't support white supremacy." One of the students, Ahmeen Muhammad, 23, later told TPM they were protesting Paul's support for voter ID laws, which civil rights groups have complained disproportionately keep minority voters from the polls. But, in general, Paul was greeted respectfully.
Paul did his best with the crowd showcasing his libertarian platform, which breaks from the GOP line on a number of key issues like drugs, where he favors more lenient penalties for nonviolent offenders, and foreign policy, where he favors a noninterventionist approach. He drew applause for calling for an end to mandatory sentences for drug crimes and laughs for talking about the hypocrisy of a country in which the previous two presidents experimented with drugs in their youth.
"Barack Obama and George Bush were lucky," he said "The law could have put both of them away for their entire young adulthood."
But overall, the speech reflected the high barriers Republicans like Paul need to overcome to break the Democrats' stranglehold.
"I'm glad the GOP is looking to reach out, but if the policies don't change [it won't matter]," pharmacy student Maric Allen, 27, told TPM afterwards.
Kayla, 21, a visiting student from nearby Trinity Washington University, said she was actually considering voting Republican based on her libertarian position on civil liberties, an area where Paul has a large following. But Paul and the GOP have still left her wanting.
"They don't talk about issues that greatly affect Americans, especially poverty," she said. "I think people think government action is important, they just don't want government in their house."