MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Following a pledge to reach out to black voters, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist led a largely Republican group of senators on a weekend trip through the South as they visited sites important to the 1960s civil rights movement.
Frist's predecessor, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, was ousted as majority leader after he appeared to praise Strom Thurmond's pro-segregation presidential campaign in 1948.
Frist said he hoped the trip would be "a catalyst that will make us a better United States Senate."
"I grew up in the South, but this will be a learning experience for me," said Frist, a Republican from Tennessee.
Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, is serving as tour guide during the three-day trip, which also includes stops in Selma, Ala., Birmingham, Ala., and Nashville.
"The civil rights movement transcends party," Lewis said. "It's good to have Republican senators here; they will be able to go back and take a message to the president and their colleagues."
One of the first stops Friday was the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy State University Montgomery. The museum documents how the city's bus boycott began after Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger.
Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who remembered going to school on segregated buses as a young boy in Camden, said he was moved.
"I think Alabama has done a pretty good job of wrestling with its past," Sessions said. "We could do better, and these kinds of things help."
After Lewis spoke from the pulpit at the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor while leading the boycott, the senators walked to the Civil Rights Memorial and sang "We Shall Overcome."
The trip was organized by the Faith and Politics Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit. Corporate sponsors helped foot the bill.
The Republican senators on the trip were Sam Brownback of Kansas, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Mike DeWine of Ohio, George Allen of Virginia, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Sessions. Jon Corzine of New Jersey was the only Democratic senator.