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Friday, December 31, 2010

Reagan’s Revolution: Stoking White Racism

A Time for Change

Things do not happen. Things are made to happen. – JFK

Revolution: Stoking White Racism

LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964
LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act in 1965

3 Civil Rights workers who were murdered in Neshoba County on June 21, 1964

Ronald Reagan made his first speech as a presidential candidate in Neshoba County
CNN has a post about LBJ and Reagan “loyalists” clashing over the “Obama agenda.”  

The article is essentially about the competing viewpoints about the economic 
legacy of LBJ and Ronald Reagan. One signed into legislation the Civil Rights Act of 1964
and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which changed life in the South as the old guard knew it.  
Those acts made Barack Obama’s candidacy an eventual possibility.  
Having been a Southern legislator, LBJ knew Republicans would benefit from the angry 
Southern backlash.  LBJ told Bill Moyers, “We’ve lost the South for a generation”  
after signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

It was Reagan’s intention to undo the Great Society.  He spoke in code and used dog 
whistle politics to speak to those who were unhappy with the civil rights and voting rights 
laws that had been passed. In 1980, Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County fair, which was 
his the first time he spoke after receiving the Republican nomination.  At that time, 
Neshoba was infamous for the murders of the three boys above by members of the
 Ku Klux Klan who were in Mississippi to try to encourage African Americans to vote.  
In an Op-Ed opinion in the New York Times, Bob Herbert explained the true significance 
of Reagan’s actions:
"It was a dangerous mission, and Andrew’s parents were reluctant to let him go. But the 
family had always believed strongly in equal rights and the benefits of social activism. 
“I didn’t have the right,” Dr. Goodman would tell me many years later, “to tell him 
not to go.”
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.”
Everybody watching the 1980 campaign knew what Reagan was signaling at the fair. 
Whites and blacks, Democrats and Republicans — they all knew. The news media knew. 
The race haters and the people appalled by racial hatred knew. And Reagan knew.
He was tapping out the code. It was understood that when politicians started chirping about 
“states’ rights” to white people in places like Neshoba County they were saying that when 
it comes down to you and the blacks, we’re with you.
And Reagan meant it…
Throughout his career, Reagan was wrong, insensitive and mean-spirited on civil rights and 
other issues important to black people. There is no way for the scribes of today to clean up 
that dismal record.
To see Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in its proper context, it has to be 
placed between the murders of the civil rights workers that preceded it and the 
acknowledgment by the Republican strategist Lee Atwater that the use of code words 
like “states’ rights” in place of blatantly bigoted rhetoric was crucial to the success of 
the G.O.P.’s Southern strategy. That acknowledgment came in the very first year of the 
Reagan presidency.
Ronald Reagan was an absolute master at the use of symbolism. It was one of the primary 
keys to his political success.
You can hear the videotape of Reagan’s Neshoba County Fair speech here.  An unlikely 
first stop for the Presidential nominee, unless you are intent on making a statement.
Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman connected the dots on Reagan’s exploitation 
of the white backlash against the civil rights movement and “the rise of the conservative 
movement.” Krugman argues that voting data corroborates that non-Southern whites never 
turned against the Democratic party; rather, the only shift was the formerly Democratic 
white southerners.
…everyone knows that white men have turned away from the Democrats over God,
 guns, national security and so on. But what everyone knows isn’t true once you exclude 
the South from the picture. As the political scientist Larry Bartels points out, in the 1952 
presidential election 40 percent of non-Southern white men voted Democratic; in 2004, 
that figure was virtually unchanged, at 39 percent.
More than 40 years have passed since the Voting Rights Act, which Reagan described in 1980
 as “humiliating to the South.” Yet Southern white voting behavior remains distinctive. 
Democrats decisively won the popular vote in last year’s House elections, but 
Southern whites voted Republican by almost two to one.
So this seismic shift that the Republicans / conservatives / right wingnuts talk about from 
the Democratic party to the GOP really only occurred in the South.  Reagan used Nixon’s 
model of “constructing a politics and a strategy of governing that attacked policies targeted 
toward blacks and other minorities without reference to race — a conservative politics that 
had the effect of polarizing the electorate along racial lines.”
According to Krugman, this was an intentional strategy based on a concession that the GOP 
had not had much luck winning the African American vote. “The G.O.P.’s own leaders admit 
that the great Southern white shift was the result of a deliberate political strategy. ‘Some 
Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying 
to benefit politically from racial polarization.’ So declared Ken Mehlman, the former chairman 
of the Republican National Committee, speaking in 2005.”  Ronald Reagan used it, exploited 
and benefited from it.  Some examples of Regan’s exploitation of racism:
He was opposed to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was the same year that 
Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney were slaughtered. As president, he actually tried to 
weaken the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He opposed a national holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., giving in only when 
Congress passed a law creating the holiday by a veto-proof majority
He tried to get rid of the federal ban on tax exemptions for private schools that practiced 
racial discrimination.
in 1988, he vetoed a bill to expand the reach of federal civil rights legislation. Congress 
overrode the veto.
Reagan also vetoed the imposition of sanctions on the apartheid regime in South Africa. 
Congress overrode that veto, too.
When he went on about the welfare queen driving her Cadillac, and kept repeating the 
story years after it had been debunked, some people thought he was engaging in race-baiting.
in 1976, he talked about working people angry about the “strapping young buck” using food 
stamps to buy T-bone steaks at the grocery store, he didn’t mean to play into racial hostility. 
True, as The New York Times reported, the ex-Governor has used the grocery-line illustration 
before, but in states like New Hampshire where there is scant black population, he has never 
used the expression “young buck,” which, to whites in the South, generally denotes a large 
black man.
Reagan declared in 1980 that the Voting Rights Act had been “humiliating to the South”
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 in 1983, Reagan 
fired three members of the Civil Rights Commission.
The upside to all of this ugliness is as relevant today as it was on the day that Krugmen 
wrote his article.  He argued that Reagan’s support for “states rights” was “a coded declaration 
of support for segregationist sentiments.”  Krugman argues that a permanent conservative 
majority will never be maintained because as “we have become a more diverse and less racist 
country over time. The “macaca” incident, in which Senator George Allen’s use of a 
racial insult led to his election defeat, epitomized the way in which America has changed for 
the better.”  The direct link between the conservative movement and racial backlash has been 
undermined by what Barack Obama discussed in his inauguration speech– that seismic shift 
in politics that is directly linked to the declining power of that racial backlash.
So when you saw “the base” showing up at Sarah Palin rallies last year where her supporters 
where blatantly and openly racist, that’s no surprise.  They are the people who watch Faux 
News (Fox News) psycho-tainment, listen to Rush, love Bill O’Reilly, think Hannity 
is a “great American,” and love Sarah Palin because she speaks the code of Nixon and 
“We believe that the best of America is not all in Washington, D.C. … We believe that the best 
of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of 
what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, 
um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” –Sarah Palin, speaking at a fundraiser in 
Greensoboro, N.C., Oct. 16, 2008
No wonder her supporters say that she is the second coming of Reagan.  She doesn’t have his 
skills, but she exploits the ugly racial backlash just the way he did.  They are shrinking, but 
the work is not done.  Clearly.

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