Ex-university president calls out McConnell on race issues

Bruce Schreiner
Associated Press

Louisville, Ky. – Taking issue with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s caution in addressing the nation’s racial discord, a former university president in Kentucky on Friday urged the Republican majority leader to speak out against President Donald Trump’s efforts to create a “greater racial divide.”

In his open letter to McConnell, Raymond M. Burse wrote that good people have needed to speak up throughout Trump’s presidency, but said “blatant acts” meant to divide the country along racial lines have accelerated and have “torn at the fabric of this nation.”

“These outright divisive acts – subtle and not so subtle – should be addressed squarely and forthrightly,” Burse wrote the Kentucky senator. “In all of this you have been silent. Why?”

In this July 27, 2020, file photo Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington.

In an interview, Burse referred to Trump’s “law-and-order” message that he said portrays racial-justice protesters as being against “what this country stands for.” He also pointed to the Republican National Convention speech this week by a white St. Louis couple criminally charged for waving guns during a Black Lives Matter protest outside their home.

Burse’s letter also called on McConnell – who sets the Senate’s agenda – to have the chamber take up a House-passed bill to restore key sections of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Burse, 69, is a former president of Kentucky State University, a historically Black land-grant school. He is a Harvard-educated lawyer who currently serves as a University of Louisville trustee and serves as a community activist with the Louisville Branch of the NAACP.

Burse, a registered Democrat, said in an interview that he has known McConnell for decades, since the senator was judge-executive of Jefferson County, which includes Louisville, and Burse was a young lawyer.

McConnell, who is Trump’s most powerful congressional ally, did not immediately comment on Burse’s letter but has said he’s proud of his record on race relations and civil rights.

“I have worked throughout my career to help close the gap so every Kentuckian can enjoy the promise of America’s founding principles,” the senator said in a statement.

McConnell’s office pointed to his decades of votes on legislation dealing with racial issues – from co-sponsoring legislation in the 1980s to apply economic sanctions to apartheid-era South Africa to his support for the 1991 Civil Rights Act and a re-authorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006.

The criticism from Burse comes as McConnell is in the middle of a reelection campaign. McConnell is being challenged by Democrat Amy McGrath in a high-spending race.

It also comes amid protests in Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, over the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old Black emergency medical technician was killed when police officers entered her apartment with a no-knock warrant during a drug investigation. No drugs were found.

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron, a McConnell protege, will decide whether three Louisville police officers will be criminally charged for their actions in the March shooting.

McConnell campaign spokeswoman Kate Cooksey said the senator’s critics “choose to ignore him when he speaks out against racism.” His campaign manager, Kevin Golden, said McConnell has shown support for civil rights throughout his career, from attending the 1963 “March on Washington” as a congressional intern to pushing for police reform legislation as majority leader.

McConnell’s office also pointed to the senator’s remarks condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups for the racial violence that erupted in 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. “We can have no tolerance for an ideology of racial hatred,” the senator said at the time.

Burse’s letter, however, focused on what he sees as Trump’s continued efforts to stoke racial unrest and McConnell’s refusal to respond. Burse called on McConnell to make “loud and clear” that he considers Trump’s rhetoric to be “completely unacceptable.”

Burse also accused McConnell of engaging in his own “code talking” with campaign ads in his quest for a seventh term in the November election. McConnell consistently defends peaceful protests. His campaign has aired TV ads showing footage of protests turning destructive while the senator denounces the actions.

In recent interviews with Kentucky broadcast stations, McConnell said he stands with police, saying the vast majority of officers are “good people trying to do a very difficult job.” But there are instances of “police misbehavior” that need to be investigated, he said.

Burse wrote that McConnell’s ads were calculated “to play to” people who “revel in such talk.”

“If my interpretation of your words and actions is wrong, then publicly state for the world to hear that ‘dog whistling’ and ‘code’ talking were and are not your intent,” Burse wrote.

“You should also state that the absence of statements by you does not mean you condone, agree with or support the words and acts of 45 directed at creating a greater racial divide,” he added, referring to Trump, who is the nation’s 45th president.