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Friday, June 11, 2004
No Excuses for Bigotry

Kevin Drum has some comments on why Reagan's states' rights comment at his 1980 speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi might not have been quite as bad as we thought:

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?

As Kevin notes, there's "not much excuse." Except there is a bit of one.

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.

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.

Reagan went to the scene of an atrocity against civil rights, and said, basically, that he symphathized with those who did the crime.

Dukakis merits being placed in the same box as Ron because he spoke at the same place? As he was attempting to win the votes of those in attendance, he chose not to beat the crowd up for what had happened there. By Kevin's logic, there was something morally wrong with Dukakis' attempt to earn the votes of the whites in Neshoba county.

The difference between what Reagan and Dukakis did is stark and vast. Imagine this scenario taking place in Germany in the 1950's. One politician stands at a podium and uses phrases that tacitly, but unmistakably, indicate his agreement with Nazism. Several years later at the same place, another politican gives a speech in which he doesn't bring up the Holocaust. Is there the tiniest shred of equivalence between the two politicians' actions? No.

Finally, no matter what Dukakis did in 1988, even if he had donned full KKK garb and lynched a black man at the fair, it has absolutely no bearing on the appropriateness or morality of what Reagan said in 1980.