Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry gave a surprisingly candid speech on race Thursday in what was touted as an economic blueprint but was framed as an outreach to the African-American community.
Speaking to a crowded ballroom at a National Press Club luncheon, the former Texas governor opened his remarks with a particularly graphic retelling of the torture and burning death of a young mentally disabled black man found guilty of rape and murder in Texas nearly 100 years ago.
“Even today, we Texans struggle to talk about what happened to Jesse Washington. We don’t want to believe that our great state could ever have been the scene of such unimaginable horror,” said Perry.
“But it is an episode in our history that we cannot ignore,” he said. “It is an episode we have an obligation to transcend.”
Perry said that he was proud to live in a country with an African-American president, but that Democrats had sold blacks short in terms of economic opportunity.
But when we gave up on trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry
“I am here to tell you that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who are truly offering black Americans the hope of a better life for themselves and their children,” said Perry.
More African-Americans moved to Texas between 2005 and 2007 than any other state except Georgia, he said, and that was because of economic opportunity, education and a higher standard of living.
“We haven’t eliminated black poverty in Texas,” Perry said. “But we have made meaningful progress.”
Still, Perry did not call for the removal of the battle flag of the Confederacy on the capitol grounds in South Carolina – a symbol of slavery to many – in the wake of the shootings at a Charleston church that left nine African-Americans dead. He said it should be left to the state to decide.
Similarly, on gay rights, Perry said he sided with the four Supreme Court justices who said “the issue needed to stay with the states” in their dissent in a landmark case last week that legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 states.
And he took issue with New York billionaire and fellow GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s controversial characterizations of Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals.
“I don’t think Donald Trump’s remarks reflect the Republican Party,” he said.
As for his own chances in a crowded Republican presidential field, Perry said his record as governor for 14 years and a former captain in the U.S. Air Force – the only GOP candidate who served active duty in the military – set him apart from the 13 others who so far have announced. Two more are expected to enter the field this month.
“I am a unique candidate,” Perry said.
CORRECTION: This version corrects an earlier version which reported in the first paragraph that Perry gave the speech on Friday.
Maria Recio: 202-383-6105 @maria_e_recio