REAGAN AND PHILADELPHIA….Ronald Reagan’s record on civil rights was pretty abysmal, but I’d like to suggest that he might be getting a (slightly) bum rap on one particular subject: his speech at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980. First, here’s the background.
In 1964 three young civil rights workers (two whites and one black) were killed near Philadelphia, Mississippi, by a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen that included several sheriff’s deputies. The state of Mississippi failed to prosecute, Robert Kennedy sent in the FBI, and in a circus trial some of the men (though not the county sheriff himself) were eventually convicted of violating the workers’ civil rights. This was, needless to say, one of the seminal events of the civil rights movement.
Now for Reagan. In 1980, after receiving the Republican nomination, Reagan flew to Mississppi and gave a speech at the Neshoba County Fair, a few miles from Philadelphia. But why? Why did he choose this place to kick off his campaign? And how could he have been insensitive enough, even in passing, to talk about “states’ rights” ? obvious code for white segregationism ? at a place like this?
Frankly, there’s not much excuse. Reagan obviously knew the racial baggage of a phrase like that at a place like Neshoba, and it’s a genuine blight on his record. However, it’s worth noting that (a) Reagan talked about states’ rights routinely in a non-racial context, (b) Mississippi at the time was seen as a swing state that Jimmy Carter had only barely won in 1976, and (c) the Neshoba event wasn’t orignally planned to be the kickoff for his campaign. His original intent was to kick off the campaign with a speech to the Urban League, but his advisors were afraid of the symbolism of doing that first and following it with Neshoba. Here is Lou Cannon’s report from the Washington Post:
Originally, Reagan was scheduled to make the Urban League appearance first, and then fly to deliver his speech here at the Neshoba County Fair.
But some in the campaign objected to the symbolism of Reagan going to a community where three civil rights workers were slain with the complicity of local police officials in 1964.
“It would have been like we were coming to Mississippi and winking at the folks here, saying we didn’t really mean to be talking to them Urban League folk,” said one Reagan source. “It would have been the wrong signal.”
So instead they switched his schedule: he went to Neshoba first and then spoke to the Urban League.
Now, so far this might not seem like a very convincing defense ? and it’s not. But let’s fast forward exactly eight years to August 4, 1988. Guess who’s talking at the Neshoba County Fair? Here’s the New York Times account:
Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, bringing his campaign today to a sweltering Mississippi town that is at once in the heart of the conservative South and a place resonant with the anguished history of the civil rights movement, had to confront the region’s enigmatic political character.
While he pledged to ”bring down the barriers to opportunity for all our people,” he made only passing reference to the problems of American minorities in a speech to an almost entirely white crowd at the Neshoba County Fair, 24 years to the day since the bodies of three slain civil rights workers were found under an earthen dam nine miles from here.
Mr. Dukakis mentioned that he was near the birthplace of Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox who was born in nearby Meridian. But he did not mention the three young civil rights workers: Andrew Goodman and Michael H. Schwerner, both whites from New York, and James E. Chaney, a black who was born in Meridian. The three were slain on a back road by a gang of Ku Klux Klansmen on the night of June 21, 1964, and found 44 days later, on Aug. 4.
The omissions may have reflected the sensitivities of the Dukakis organization to the dilemmas at this campaign stop, at a time when he is trying to attract both white conservatives and blacks in the South.
On his airplane later, Mr. Dukakis noted that he had said in his speech that it was a ”special day” and insisted that everyone knew what he meant. He also said he had come to Neshoba County to talk about economic development, which he called the ”the fundamental issue facing the people of Mississippi and the people of the South.”
Does Ronald Reagan deserve criticism for opening his campaign at Neshoba and using the occasion to mention his support for states’ rights to an all-white Southern crowd? Yes.
On the other hand, he’s not the only candidate to head to Neshoba shortly after being nominated, and he’s not the only one to shade his words there to court Southern whites. In fact, even with Reagan’s performance to learn from, Dukakis decided to play pretty much the same game eight years later.
During Reagan’s entire career, from his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act to his risible suggestion during his presidency that South Africa had eliminated segregation, his civil rights record was pretty abominable. However, I suspect that in this particular incident there’s a bit less than meets the eye. Caveat emptor.