In 1980, one of the major party presidential nominees opened his general election by delivering a speech in a small town in the Deep South that just by coincidence happened to be the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. That same candidate had previously complained about federal housing policies which attempted “to inject black families into a white neighborhood just to create some sort of integration.” He argued that there was “nothing wrong with ethnic purity being maintained.” That candidate was President Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee.
.. Seven miles away from the fairgrounds is the town of Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. Unfortunately, it would be difficult to find many places in Alabama or Mississippi which are not within seven miles of the scene of some infamous past act of racial violence, such as a lynching.
.. It would be false to say that Carter was appealing to racists because he kicked off his campaign in a town that was the current home of the Ku Klux Klan, and it would be equally false to say that Reagan was appealing to racists because he mentioned his lifelong theme of state’s rights at a county fair several miles away from the site of an infamous crime 16 years earlier. Today, columnists and commentators who tell you that the “kick off” for Reagan’s general election campaign was an appeal to racists are demonstrating that they don’t bother to check the facts before they make extreme allegations. People who are making coded appeals to racism don’t tell their audience that the “stereotype” of welfare recipients is wrong, and that “the overwhelming majority” of them want to work.
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.”
This Republican leader knew that the segregationist Alabama governor was the symbol of southern white resentment against the civil rights struggle. Richard Nixon had angled to win these voters in 1968 and 1972. Mississippi Republicans knew that a successful Republican candidate in 1980 would have to continue the effort.
On July 31st, just days before Reagan went to Neshoba County, the New York Timesreported that the Ku Klux Klan had endorsed Reagan. In its newspaper, the Klan said that the Republican platform “reads as if it were written by a Klansman.” Reagan rejected the endorsement, but only after a Carter cabinet official brought it up in a campaign speech. The dubious connection did not stop Reagan from using segregationist language in Neshoba County.
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.”
.. Democrats continued to win elections in the South after the 1960s by appealing to populist economic issues—a history that Democrats today should recall before they start “whistling past Dixie.”
- .. Throughout his career, Reagan benefited from subtly divisive appeals to whites who resented efforts in the 1960s and 70s to reverse historic patterns of racial discrimination.
- He did it in 1966 when he campaigned for the California governorship by denouncing open housing and civil rights laws.
- He did it in 1976 when he tried to beat out Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination by attacking welfare in subtly racist terms. And he did it in Neshoba County in 1980.
.. Reagan knew that southern Republicans were making racial appeals to win over conservative southern Democrats, and he was a willing participant.
The sad truth is that many Republican leaders remain in a massive state of denial about the party’s four-decade-long addiction to race-baiting. They won’t make any headway with blacks by bashing Lott if they persist in giving Ronald Reagan a pass for his racial policies.
The same could be said, of course, about such Republican heroes as, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon or George Bush the elder, all of whom used coded racial messages to lure disaffected blue collar and Southern white voters away from the Democrats.
Yet it’s with Reagan, who set a standard for exploiting white anger and resentment rarely seen since George Wallace stood in the schoolhouse door, that the Republican’s selective memory about its race-baiting habit really stands out.
.. As a young congressman, Lott was among those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s’ ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing declaration of his support for “states’ rights” — a code word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern voters.
.. Then there was Reagan’s attempt, once he reached the White House in 1981, to reverse a long-standing policy of denying tax-exempt status to private schools that practice racial discrimination and grant an exemption to Bob Jones University. Lott’s conservative critics, quite rightly, made a big fuss about his filing of a brief arguing that BJU should get the exemption despite its racist ban on interracial dating.