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Visiting Howard University Wednesday morning, Sen. Rand Paul spent half an hour making a pitch for why African Americans should consider voting Republican. It might have been more effective, however, if the Kentucky Republican hadn’t spent most of his time lecturing on the history of civil rights to the students of one of the nation’s premiere historically black colleges.

The students sat in polite silence in a packed, airless auditorium while Paul explained that Republicans, actually, were historically the party of civil rights and delved into a little legal history of discriminatory housing laws. (He also quoted Toni Morrison.) No one could remain quiet, though, when Paul fumbled for the name of a black senator from Massachusetts.

“I’m blanking on his name,” Paul said, to which most of the students yelled, “Edward Brooke!” (Who, as it happens, is a Dunbar High School alumnus from the District.)

Not two minutes later, Paul stumbled again when he asked, “How many of you, if I would have said, ‘The founders of the NAACP, do you think they were Republicans or Democrats?’ Would everyone in here know that they were Republicans?”

“Yes,” the audience answered in unison, and broke into chatter among themselves.

“I don’t mean that to be insulting,” Paul said, raising his hands helplessly. “I don’t know what you know.”

Aside from assuming a lack of knowledge about black history among mostly black students at a historically black college, Paul didn’t do too badly with the crowd. He scored strong applause from the audience several times, usually when expressing his opposition to mandatory federal sentences for non-violent drug offenses, and the only moment of real dissent came and went quickly. (A student named Brian Menifee approached the podium with a large banner reading “Howard University does not support white supremacy.” He was immediately removed by security and later stood outside the auditorium grinning and giving interviews.)

Paul also received appreciative giggles by joking about the unusualness of the situation—he’s one of very few high-profile Republicans to speak at Howard, following former RNC Chair Michael Steele in 2009 and Colin Powell in 1994. After this speech, students expressed admiration for his willingness to venture onto their turf and especially for his participating in a lengthy Q&A. But above all, students I spoke to expressed puzzlement at Paul’s references to the Republican Party as the party of civil rights.

“All the examples he gave were from the post-Civil War, Reconstruction era,” said Brandon Patterson, a sophomore who says he was at one point a Ron Paul supporter and wanted to learn more about his son, Rand. “Another thing that really disappointed me was the speech was supposed to be about minority inclusion in the Republican Party. But really all he gave us was a history lesson about what’s gone in the past, but he didn’t talk about anything they’re doing now to reach out to, not only minorities, but religious minorities, gays and lesbians. So for me…I could have not went.”

“I wasn’t so much convinced by his argument,” said Ciara Grubbs, a sophomore who found Paul’s references to Democratic racial malarky in the 1950s “sort of invalid.” Grubbs also found Paul’s question about the NAACP founders funny. “I am very much aware of it,” she said. “And I know who Edward Brooke is.”

(Grubbs was also unimpressed with the protestor. “Protesting is really big here,” she said, adding that she thought it was “inappropriate” of Menifee to rush the podium.)

Howard administrators and staff on hand stayed largely out of sight, with a brief introduction by the school’s general counsel, Kurt Schmoke. A group of them lined the back wall of the auditorium and watched while their students took turns at the microphone to lob questions at the senator. One student, who identified as a former White House intern, got up and told Paul that in his work with a nonprofit, he’d witnessed attempts by Republican state legislatures to limit voting rights, and he wanted to know how Paul could say his party was the party of civil rights. “How can you say that, sir?” he asked. The Howard staffers all smiled proudly.

Photo by Talk Radio News Service via Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0