Romney McDaniel backs off MLK claim
Lansing — Michigan Republican National Committeewoman Ronna Romney McDaniel backtracked Monday from a claim that her grandfather "marched side by side" with Martin Luther King Jr. — an assertion that got her uncle in hot water during his first bid for the White House.
Romney McDaniel, who is the frontrunner to be chair of the Michigan Republican Party, sent an email Monday to supporters commemorating the federal holiday honoring the life of the late civil rights leader.
"My grandfather, Governor George Romney, marched side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.," Romney McDaniel wrote. "I am proud of my family's history with the civil rights movement."
There is no disputing George Romney and King were allies in the civil rights movement, but there's no evidence to suggest the two marched alongside each other in the 1960s. A June 29, 1963, Detroit News photo shows George Romney marching with a Detroit NAACP leader and other African-Americans and whites against housing discrimination in Grosse Pointe.
Romney McDaniel backed away from the statement later Monday when The Detroit News asked her to elaborate on when King and George Romney marched shoulder to shoulder.
"My grandfather stood side by side with King's movement. He marched with the NAACP," Romney McDaniel wrote in an email to The News. "They never marched in the same march. But my grandfather was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement and I am proud of our family's history. I am sorry I didn't make that clearer."
In December 2007, when Mitt Romney faced questions for saying he "saw my father march with Martin Luther King," his presidential campaign backpedaled and said he was speaking "figuratively, not literally."
"This must be in the Romney family tales book or something," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "Obviously she didn't learn from Mitt Romney's earlier mistake. It must simply be often repeated in the Romney household."
The claim that George Romney and King marched together through Grosse Pointe in 1963 originated in an unsubstantiated account in a 1967 book co-authored by the late David Broder. The Grosse Pointe Historical Society has said King never marched in the Detroit suburb that year, though.
Romney did not take part in King's historic June 23, 1963, march down Woodward Avenue in Detroit with 125,000 people because it fell on a Sunday and the governor — a devout Mormon — did not make public appearances on the Sabbath. But he did declare the day "Freedom Day in Michigan," according to a 2012 report in The Atlantic magazine.
Joe Darden, former dean of urban affairs programs at Michigan State University, said Monday he found no evidence of Romney and King marching together in his research for a book on race and development in Detroit. But Romney did speak at a conference in Detroit on housing equality that the NAACP sponsored in King's name, Darden said.
Bill Ballenger, founder of the Lansing newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said George Romney was a vocal minority in the Republican Party, pushing for civil rights reforms.
George Romney, who was governor from 1963 to 1969, established Michigan's first civil rights commission and was an ardent supporter of open housing policies to end decades of real estate segregation practices. He also led a spontaneous march in 1965 in Detroit against police actions against blacks in Selma, Alabama.
"The point that Mitt Romney and Ronna Romney McDaniel were trying to make ... is (George) Romney was really an early hero in the Republican Party in the civil rights movement in the 1960s," Ballenger said.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson used Romney McDaniel's misstatement Monday to criticize his likely future political rival.
"Ronna Romney McDaniel should know better than to try to twist the truth, especially on today, when we remember Martin Luther King Jr.'s exceptional contributions to the advancement of justice and equality in our country," Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson also condemned Romney McDaniel for not weighing in on the controversy surrounding her counterpart on the RNC, Dave Agema.
Romney McDaniel and Gov. Rick Snyder are among the only remaining high-ranking Republican leaders in Michigan who have not called for Agema to resign for distributing literature on Facebook that demeans blacks, gays and Muslims.
"Ms. Romney McDaniel dishonors the legacy of Dr. King and Gov. Romney by refusing to address her fellow Republican leader Dave Agema's bigoted, racist rants," Johnson said. "As the likely next Republican chair, it's long past time for her to break her silence and address Agema's shockingly offensive comments."
Romney McDaniel was mum last week about Agema as the RNC executive committee censured him and outgoing state party chairman Bobby Schostak began searching for a new way to legally oust Agema from the unpaid party post.
Snyder has criticized Agema's rhetoric, but stopped short of saying the conservative firebrand from Grandville should resign his GOP leadership post.