Was Reagan A Racist?

One presidential candidate is lighting up the New York Times Opinion page with impassioned attacks and defenses. No, it’s not Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Jon Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, or Mitt Romney. It’s Ronald Reagan.

Ronald ReaganThe crucial question of the day, if you’re reading the New York Times Opinion pages at least, is whether or not Ronald Reagan was making a veiled appeal to the Southern white electorate in his 1980 campaign.

The claim, made many times by columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, is that Reagan, by speaking about “state’s rights” when he visited the Neshoba County Fair outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, was sending a conscious message to white racists that he was on their side. Because Philadelphia was famously the location of the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, the choice of location was both an intentional and powerful message by the Gipper that, like Nixon and Goldwater before him, he wanted the vote of Southern white supremacists.

To Krugman especially, this is absolute proof that the Republican party was racist and is thus worthy of little more than disdain. It’s one of his central, and oft-mentioned problems with Republicans. It was mentioned at least three times in his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

So it was hard to ignore when David Brooks, a rather conservative columnist at the Times, took issue with the claim. In last Friday’s column, “History and Calumny,” Brooks made his opinion completely clear, even as he obfuscated about who was really to blame.

Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Brooks then goes on to explain–with no shortage of credible citations to emphasize his point–that the week after receiving the nomination, Mr. Reagan was actually trying to recruit black voters–mostly Democrats since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt–to join the Republican movement. As Brooks says, “Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan [a black lawyer, activist, and adviser to President Clinton] in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.”

As Timothy Noah made clear on Slate that same day, Brooks column was clearly about Krugman, though it (intentionally) failed to mention him by name. After reading Noah’s piece I thought the matter was rather finished. That is until I read Tuesday’s page, in which Bob Herbert renewed the claim with full force: Reagan was aware of and happy with his racist provocation in Mississippi. In Mr. Herbert’s words:

The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Mr. Herbert, like Mr. Brooks, doesn’t explain that the primary “Reagan apologist” he’s concerned with is a fellow Times columnist.

Comparing the two columns, its undeniable that Brooks makes a more persuasive case about Reagan’s goal during the first week of his campaign. Mr. Herbert’s rebuttal completely ignores the strong and credible argument made by Kevin Drum (and cited by Mr. Brooks) at the left-of-center Washington Monthly that though Reagan’s history on racial issues is embarrassing–notable for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights act, his ignorance of South African apartheid, and his attempts to roll back the 1965 Voting Rights Act–this story is overblown.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan was a racist and a race-baiter, but I’m not sure why it’s worth debating in a newspaper. The obvious interpretation, as is so often the case in questions of history, is that the past is serving as a proxy for the present. By highlighting this story Krugman and Herbert intend to raise questions about racism in the modern Republican party. Brooks defense is an attempt to claim that race is a non-issue to the party and its backers.

But I just wish the New York Times Opinion page would stop using the 1980 Philadelpha Speech as a stand-in for legitimate questions of modern politics. Let’s honestly address an interesting and non-emotional question, like if “law-and-order conservatives,” who oppose anything but wholesale deportation for illegal immigrants, are really just racists. I’m sure that’s an issue we can all talk about in a relaxed and detached manner…

8 responses to “Was Reagan A Racist?”

  1. that the week after receiving the nomination, Mr. Reagan was actually trying to recruit black voters

    I don’t see how this is exculpatory to the charge that Reagan pandered to racial sentiments in the South. Any first-year student of rhetoric knows that setting is an inseparable part of speech.

    Are we to believe the Great Communicator didn’t understand that deploying the “states rights” trope in, of all places, Neshoba County, Mississippi, created a racist enthymeme (particularly given that he had proclaimed earlier that very same year that the Voting Rights Act was “humiliating to the South”)?

  2. Andy, though I agree that setting is a part of rhetoric it is hardly the only one. The issue of place is also muddled in a chaotic campaign. In 1980, Mississippi was seen as an important swing state which Carter had won in 1976. Further, we can’t ignore that Reagan’s appearance seems to have been motivated (rightly or wrongly) by the opinion that the fair was crucial to politics in the state, not because he wanted to go to a place where three civil rights workers were killed.

    Also, Brooks makes it relatively clear–and no one has refuted, nor could they–that the words “state’s rights,” though uttered, hardly stood alone. Reagan’s words, quoted by Brooks:

    “Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level.”

    Though one could make an argument about the inherent racism of advocating for local control, I don’t think we should. Republicans regularly appeal to state’s rights as Reagan did, not to race-bait, but as a way to appease the libertarian wing of the party. I’d be tempted to believe that if Reagan meant anything by it, it was primarily that he supports weakening the Federal government, which is not necessarily or inherently a racial position.

    I’m not contending, nor would anyone but the most foolhardy fan, that Reagan was some great anti-racism crusader. But his overall stance on race is specious to the question of Philadelphia, where there is legitimate doubt that Reagan was intentionally deploying some coded racial message.

  3. I don’t think it’s a coded message; in fact, I think it’s bloody obvious.

    Naturally, Reagan couldn’t go all Orval Faubus (that most famous of Southern “educational policy” advocates) on the crowd and remain a viable national candidate.

    The local crowd at that time probably wouldn’t have responded favorably to that kind of rant, either. But let’s keep in mind that this was a mere 16 years after the murders, and 22 years before the community would finally come to grips with what had taken place.

    Regardless of what meanings federalism evoked in the rest of the country, in that place and for the people to whom he was speaking it alluded to a very particular symbolism about Southern Pride: Faubus telling the carpetbaggers to mind their own business.

    It boggles the mind to think that a great rhetorician like Reagan wasn’t aware of that fact. That’s not to say that he was making racist syllogisms for their own sake; he was trying like the devil to make people believe he was on their side. And in that he was spectacularly successful.

  4. But if the people to whom he was speaking understood that “I believe in states’ rights” was some kind of message of southern pride, they didn’t respond as such. They didn’t stir or applaud when he said it (Brooks links to the audio).

    And the campaign was aware of the symbolism of going so close to Philadelphia, but decided it was important enough to go anyway. Perhaps you can reasonably say that they were wrong to attend the fair, but I still find the claim that the appearance is incontrovertible proof that Reagan and his supporters were racists is, at best, weak.

    I think both Krugman and Herbet have a valid point about Reagan’s policies and the importance of race in the Republican resurgence. But race wasn’t overtly an issue in Reagan’s appearance and the fair, and the importance of event has certainly been exaggerated. I think it’s rhetorically useful to be able to claim some moment as seminal proof of the racism of Republican, but that hardly means that Krugman’s story about the event is accurate.

  5. David, the segregationists didn’t call their faction the States’ Rights Democratic Party by accident.

    Note that early in the speech Reagan makes a remark along the lines of “I’m a Republican, and I know you all are Democrats…”

    This is interesting, because Southern Democrats were not federalists or small-government enthusiasts. They were the backbone of the New Deal, for pity’s sake. The only area in which Southern Dems favored federalism were matters involving race.

    And Reagan’s appeal wasn’t seminal; it was the culmination of years of using race to drive a wedge through the South. Since 1968, if not before, the GOP had explicitly made it a goal through its Southern Strategy to capture the same demographic as George Wallace, who once said he should have replaced “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” with “States’ rights now! States’ rights tomorrow! States’ rights forever!”

    I don’t think it was wrong for Reagan to attend the fair (BTW, the Reagan camp admitted the decision to not kick off with the Urban League was made specifically to avoid sending the “wrong” signal to Southern whites). But it was wrong to employ such loaded language in a place where Jim Crow was not by any means a faded memory, simply to score votes as the Southern Democrats had up to that point.

  6. I agree with most everything you say, especially that “Reagan’s appeal wasn’t seminal.” I’m not making any claim that the Republican party didn’t historically use racial issues to make Dixiecrats into Republicans. Nor am I claiming that Reagan was radically divorced from that tradition. I merely feel–as you seem to agree–that the Neshoba appearance is hardly the shining example of that strategy that Krugman has tried to make it.

    The other thing I would say about “state’s rights” is that Reagan used the term (at Neshoba) as part of his wide-ranging discussion of his distaste for the bloat of government (especially Federal) that he argued kept people down. This is not to deny that the term has a troubling lineage, but to make clear that uttering the term itself hardly means you’re intentionally trying to bring that lineage to mind and become a part of it.

    I also thinks its notable, though perhaps not meaningful, that though the term “states’ rights” may have had an established and racist meaning in the South, Reagan was not a Southerner. That doesn’t necessarily excuse the use of the term, but it does complicate the idea that he knew exactly what “I believe in states’ rights” would imply to concerned observers.

  7. I just can’t buy that. There’s too much context that demonstrates otherwise. Reagan was too good of a politician and speaker to merely stumble on a shared connection like that.

    Granted, the speech was presented with his inimitable sunny style, but beneath is this dark undertone. And it’s not outrage over big government. As I pointed out earlier, that same year associated civil rights legislation with Southern humiliation. This point was not lost on Southern whites; Southern Partisan magazine and other voices of the old guard gave it prominence.

    This wasn’t just a stump speech that he made across the country. It was designed for a Southern audience with the theme, “the Democrats have abandoned you. I am here to pick up the banner.”

    Lyndon Johnson said that the Civil Rights Act would hand the South and many northern “hard hats” to the GOP. And movement conservatives jumped on it immediately, followed soon thereafter by the rest of the party. Reagan was among those who picked up the signal immediately and rode the backlash to the governorship (he pointed to “negroes” specifically in speeches on California’s equal housing law).

    Krugman’s point is that the small government talk wasn’t enough to swing the South and many of the northern blue-collar Dems to the GOP. Southerners loved New Deal government – right up to the point that black people, including all those promiscuous “Welfare Queens” also became recipients of the largess.

  8. In general, I agree that Johnson was right that the Civil Rights Act et al. ceded the South to the Republicans, and the party did take advantage of that. I don’t doubt that Reagan was aware of the “southern strategy” and may have even, as you say, participated in it with the “humiliation” statement (which I know nothing about).

    Having said that, on Neshoba, I mainly take issue with Krugman’s claim that Reagan somehow specifically chose that location and to use the term “states’ rights” to show that he was on the side of the Southern segregationists. It completely ignores that Mississippi was a swing state at the time, that the fair was important to politics there, and that “states’ rights” is not always a racial term. I also think the idea that everyone understood the speech as Krugman says they did is questionable.

    Having said that, I do agree that Reagan was hardly a minority advocate. But not being an advocate is different from being a dyed-in-the-wool segregationist (something I think Krugman would rather people forget).

    I wouldn’t try to deny that some observers (Southerners or otherwise) may have seen Neshoba as proof that Reagan was on the side of the Southern whites, but that hardly means that his intent was such. If anything, Reagan was concerned about the implications of the location, not glorying in them.

    I’ll stay out of the debate over whether Reagan’s anti-Welfare campaign was racist, though I do think it’s an interesting contention. I also want to thank you for this interesting exchange. Whether or not either of us is convinced to change position, I certainly enjoy the discussion.