David Brooks seems to think that Reagan is being unfairly portrayed as a racist and he seems to think that he has that reputation because of his infamous campaign kick-off in 1980:
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.
… Reagan’s speech at the fair was short and cheerful, and can be heard at: http://www.onlinemadison.com/ftp/reagan/reaganneshoba.mp3. He told several jokes, and remarked: “I know speaking to this crowd, I’m speaking to a crowd that’s 90 percent Democrat.”
He spoke mostly about inflation and the economy, but in the middle of a section on schools, he said this: “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.”
… But still the slur spreads. It’s spread by people who, before making one of the most heinous charges imaginable, couldn’t even take 10 minutes to look at the evidence. It posits that there was a master conspiracy to play on the alleged Klan-like prejudices of American voters, when there is no evidence of that conspiracy. And, of course, in a partisan age there are always people eager to believe this stuff.
Brooks, unsurprsingly, is not correct:
Similarly, when Reagan declared in 1980 that the Voting Rights Act had been “humiliating to the South,” he didn’t mean to signal sympathy with segregationists. It was all an innocent mistake.
In 1982, when Reagan intervened on the side of Bob Jones University, which was on the verge of losing its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating, he had no idea that the issue was so racially charged. It was all an innocent mistake.
And the next year, when Reagan fired three members of the Civil Rights Commission, it wasn’t intended as a gesture of support to Southern whites. It was all an innocent mistake.
Poor Reagan. He just kept on making those innocent mistakes, again and again and again.
PS: It has been pointed out to me that Reagan opposed making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday, giving in only when Congress passed a law creating the holiday by a veto-proof majority. But he really didn’t mean to disrespect the civil rights movement – it was just an innocent mistake.
He also leaves out a few details about Reagan’s trip to Neshoba:
A full account of the incident has to consider how the national GOP was trying to strengthen its southern state parties and win support from southern white Democrats. Consider a letter that Michael Retzer, the Mississippi national committeeman, wrote in December 1979 to the Republican national committee. Well before the Republicans had nominated Reagan, the national committee was polling state leaders to line up venues where the Republican nominee might speak. Retzer pointed to the Neshoba County Fair as ideal for winning what he called the “George Wallace inclined voters.”
… It was clear from other episodes in that campaign that Reagan was content to let southern Republicans link him to segregationist politics in the South’s recent past. Reagan’s states rights line was prepared beforehand and reporters covering the event could not recall him using the term before the Neshoba County appearance. John Bell Williams, an arch-segregationist former governor who had crossed party lines in 1964 to endorse Barry Goldwater, joined Reagan on stage at another campaign stop in Mississippi. Reagan’s campaign chair in the state, Trent Lott, praised Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist Dixiecrat candidate in 1948, at a Reagan rally, saying that if Thurmond had been elected president “we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”
And Herbert, perhaps the most under-appreciated columnist in America, reminds Brooks that, yes, that speech was precisely as bad as people claim it was:
After a brief stopover in Ohio, Andrew traveled to the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County, Mississippi, a vicious white-supremacist stronghold. Just days earlier, members of the Ku Klux Klan had firebombed a black church in the county and had beaten terrified worshipers.
Andrew would not survive very long. On June 21, one day after his arrival, he and fellow activists Michael Schwerner and James Chaney disappeared. Their bodies wouldn’t be found until August. All had been murdered, shot to death by whites enraged at the very idea of people trying to secure the rights of African-Americans.
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.”
Racist is as racist does, to plagerize the worst movie of my lifetime. I don’t care, really, how Reagan treated African American in his personal life. I don;t care that prominent people seem to think that he wasn’t really a racist. What I care about is that Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the Conservative Movement, made a career out of deliberately appealing to the racist vote. it brought him to power and, as the above shows, it was a constant tool throughout his career. Ronald Reagan acted in public as a racist acts. He deliberately set out to appeal to racists and continue the odious Southern Strategy. In doing so, he helped to mainstream racism in the GOP and thus the country.
Racist is as racist does, and Reagan did quite a bit of racism. He got elected in part by chanting the genteel version of “n*gger, n*gger, n*gger” and no amount of wishful thinking or historical revisionism is going to change that. One wonders why, exactly, people like David Brooks are trying to excuse such racism.