In 1948, Strom Thurmond formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party (aka the “Dixiecrats”) with the express goal of having “Segregation Forever,” with the help of 35 Democratic National Convention delegates from Alabama and Mississippi.
In 1964, three men who were helping register blacks to vote were murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan kicked off his bid to be president at a county fairground near Philadelphia, Mississippi, declaring “I believe in states’ rights”.
“States’ rights” has historically been a “code word” signifying support for racial segregation. It’s part of the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy,” where they apparently court white, supposedly racist, Southern voters as a way toward success gaining the presidency and Congress.
I provide this bit of history because there’s some fascinating back-and-forth going on in the New York Times’ opinion columns recently. New York Times columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert have been publishing essays on the “anti-black” G.O.P and the “states’ rights” phrase in their opinion pieces and in Krugman’s new book, “The Conscience of a Liberal”. Apparently the repeated use of the phrase to disgrace Reagan, and, by extension, the whole Conservative Republican party as racist, concerned fellow NY Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote his own column defending Reagan.
But NY Times columnists seemingly aren’t permitted to argue with each other by direct reference in print (or in their blogs); what we end up with is an intriguing, but difficult-to-follow asynchronous debate among respected journalists who can’t mention each other by name.
Krugman, in a September 24, 2007 essay entitled “Politics in Black and White,” opines:
Since the days of Gerald Ford, just about every Republican presidential campaign has included some symbolic gesture of approval for good old-fashioned racism.
Thus Ronald Reagan, who began his political career by campaigning against California’s Fair Housing Act, started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states’ rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered. In 2000, Mr. Bush made a pilgrimage to Bob Jones University, famed at the time for its ban on interracial dating.
Herbert adds some color (no pun intended) to this argument in his piece a day later, “The Ugly Side of the G.O.P.” by stating:
In one of the vilest moves in modern presidential politics, Ronald Reagan, the ultimate hero of this latter-day Republican Party, went out of his way to kick off his general election campaign in 1980 in that very same Philadelphia, Miss. He was not there to send the message that he stood solidly for the values of Andrew Goodman. He was there to assure the bigots that he was with them.
“I believe in states’ rights,” said Mr. Reagan. The crowd roared.
Other mentions over the subsequent weeks (and the many apparent references in Krugman’s book) eventually led Brooks to respond, in that “I can’t tell you who I’m referring to” manner, kicking off his “History and Calumny” piece on November 9 with:
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.
The truth is more complicated.
A day later, Krugman “responds” in “Innocent Mistakes“:
So there’s a campaign on to exonerate Ronald Reagan from the charge that he deliberately made use of Nixon’s Southern strategy. When he went to Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980, the town where the civil rights workers had been murdered, and declared that “I believe in states’ rights,” he didn’t mean to signal support for white racists. It was all just an innocent mistake.
Indeed, you do really have to feel sorry for Reagan. He just kept making those innocent mistakes.
And two days after that, Herbert also “responds,” providing some historical context of the 1968 murders and the 1980 Reagan appearance in “Righting Reagan’s Wrongs?“:
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.
I can’t wait to see how these columnists respond to each other (without responding to each other) in the upcoming weeks.
Interestingly, a non-NY Times author has jumped into the fray: American history professor Joseph Crespino, on History News Network, does a solid job summing up both sides of the argument, while coming down clearly on the side that Reagan knew what he was doing with his appearance and “states’ rights” line:
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.
Reagan knew that southern Republicans were making racial appeals to win over conservative southern Democrats, and he was a willing participant.
Crespino also touches on other instances of Reagan’s methods of appealing to specific voters and voter fears:
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.
I’ve long been fascinated by race discussions, and certainly using race to win in politics is nothing new and scarely a secret to anyone familiar with American history. If you’d like to learn more, you can read about the Mississippi murders (made into the Gene Hackman/Willem DaFoe movie Mississippi Burning), the Republican’s Southern strategy, Dixiecrats, and States’ Rights.
And, if you have the time, look for a copy of They Should Have Served That Cup of Coffee, a collection of retrospective essays from 1960s activists. You can read most of it for free on Google at the previous link, or you can pick it up at Amazon or your local used bookstore. And don’t forget Paul Krugman’s book, The Conscience of a Liberal.