By JENNIFER STEINHAUERJULY 10, 2015
WASHINGTON — Last spring, Marc H. Morial, the president of the National Urban League, found himself in a place he has come to know well over the years, across a desk from Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, talking about public policy.
Mr. Morial’s question this time was pointed: What was going on with the confirmation vote for Loretta E. Lynch, President Obama’s nominee for attorney general, which Mr. McConnell had been dragging out for months over an unrelated imbroglio with Democrats.
“He said, ‘I believe she will be confirmed,’ ” Mr. Morial recalled. But what Mr. McConnell did not tell him — or anybody else for that matter — was that it would happen with his vote.
While Mr. McConnell’s aye in favor of Ms. Lynch may have startled many of his Republican colleagues, it was consistent with his nuanced, sometimes surprising, sometimes contentious record on civil rights that has placed him apart from some Republican colleagues and from some voters in his home state, Kentucky.
In recent years, Mr. McConnell’s longstanding commitment to civil rights legislation has come into conflict with his party’s push for state-imposed limits on early voting, voter identification requirements and other measures that Democrats say are intended to disenfranchise minorities.
Eyes will now turn to Mr. McConnell, an early voice calling for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol, after a major skirmish in the House this week over the use of the flag on federal land. “One thing I am not in favor of erasing is our history,” he said, referring to the removal of statues, not the House debate on the flag. “The Civil War was a part of our history and there were actually good people on both sides of that war.”
The tension can be seen in his own ambivalence about changes to civil rights laws proposed by some members of Congress, including measures that would bring back federal oversight of elections in some states.
But Mr. McConnell’s interest in race issues was inspired by his upbringing in Kentucky by parents who opposed segregation. It was fermented on the campus of the University of Louisville, where he encouraged students to march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was reinforced by his internship in the office of Senator John Sherman Cooper, a Kentucky Republican who helped break the Southern-led filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It also surfaced during his first term in the Senate, when Mr. McConnell’s vote helped Congress override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a measure imposing sanctions on South Africa during apartheid, and has persisted through his years in the United States Capitol, most recently last month, when Mr. McConnell stood before reporters and said that a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, should be removed from Kentucky’s Capitol.
“This whole business of America moving past its original sin,” Mr. McConnell said in an interview, “has been over a big period during which I have lived.”
Mr. McConnell’s strong feelings about racial equality began with his parents, whom he often refers to as “very enlightened Southerners” who were involved in the National Urban League.
“I was born in North Alabama, and when I was a little kid, I remember segregated movie theaters, segregated drinking fountains, segregated schools,” he said. “We had a day off for Robert E. Lee’s birthday, along with Lincoln’s. The Civil War was omnipresent.”
During college, he served as an intern in Washington and attended Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 — “You could see a massive throng of humanity down to the memorial” — and wrote a college editorial excoriating opponents of civil rights. He worked as an intern for Mr. Cooper, opening mail, much of which was from constituents unhappy with the senator’s support for the Civil Rights Act.
Mr. McConnell, 73, recalled, as he often does, asking Mr. Cooper how he could handle the overwhelming pressure. His boss told him, “There are times when you are supposed to lead, and other times to reflect the views of your state, and I think it is time to lead,” he said. “That was pretty inspirational to a young guy just going to law school.”