More than a dozen African American speakers gathered in Washington today to help the Tea Party Express shed its ties to former chair, spokesperson and racial burr in its saddle, Mark Williams. Though the TPE never publicly rebuked Williams after his racially controversial blog post led to his resignation from the group, the speakers from the podium at the event today — billed as a National Black Conservatives Rally — were more than willing to call him out.
[TPM SLIDESHOW: Tea Party Express Hosts ‘National Black Conservatives Rally’]
“How many times do they have to pluck that bad apple out of the barrel before people quit focusing on it?” said Herman Cain, an African American talk show host. “The [tea party] movement is millions of people and hundreds of organizations.
But though the speakers at the podium denied it, Williams was the reason for the event today. His antics — which rose to the level of national attention after the NAACP passed a resolution claiming that the tea party harbors racism in its ranks — caused the first serious self-reflection on race relations in the movement and, today, led to some African Americans associated with the TPE to criticize the group over how it dealt with it its one-time star.
“No matter his intention, Mark’s response was unwise,” said William Owens, an African American conservative and a regular on the Tea Party Express’ bus tours. Williams said he understood that the TPE’s “slow response” to Williams’ “satirical” blog post about the NAACP might have “made things look” like the organization was supporting Williams, but Owens said that wasn’t the case.
“It was out of loyalty to a friend,” Owens said. “He has apologized and we have forgiven him.”
Owens had harsh words for the Tea Party Federation, which publicly repudiated Williams and kicked the Tea Party Express out of the movement after the blog post became a national controversy. I asked him to weigh in on the move, considering that he was speaking on behalf of the only tea party group to be publicly rebuked by another for racism.
“For them to take that upon themselves was totally out of context,” Owens told me. “There has been no judge and jury set up to condemn them or any other group.”
The speakers at Wednesday’s event spent the majority of their time talking not about Williams or the Tea Party Express, but about the notion that the movement is defined by racism. As we’ve heard a lot lately, black conservatives in the tea party movement strongly reject that notion, and today was no exception. When the unique racial mix of the speakers (only one was white) was set aside, the message from the event today was similar to one heard at every tea party rally: the left is racist for talking about race, and groups like the NAACP reject any African American who refuses to vote the Democratic party line. Meanwhile, the speakers said, the tea party is the home of positive race relations in the country.
“You’re not just going to eradicate racism in America, because it’s in our hearts,” Selena Owens, wife of William, said. “But you’re not going to put it on our backs either just because we’re speaking out against a president who happens to have a darker color to his skin.”
Alan Keyes, perhaps the most famous black conservative, offered largely the same message. But he also weighed in on Williams when I asked, condemning the former tea party superstar for making a mockery of race relations in the country.
“I think what happened to Mark Williams is an illustration of two things,” Keyes said. “First of all, it’s always dangerous — especially when you’re dealing with an environment of deep hostility and nobody’s going to defend you — to deal with really serious issues in a satirical or comedy way.”
“Just don’t do it,” he said.