Reagan’s infamous speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi

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.

Carter kicked off his general election campaign with a speech in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Although the Klan’s headquarters were located in that small town, Carter was not appealing to the Klan vote, but was instead hoping to win the votes of the more than 40,000 people who saw him speak at the town’s annual Labor Day fair. Perhaps Carter chose to start his general election campaign in rural Alabama because he recognized that Reagan might take away some of the southern states that had been crucial to Carter’s win in 1976. As things turned out, Carter was right to be concerned; he ended up losing Alabama by 1%.

After the Republicans nominated Ronald Reagan in Detroit in July, he gave his first post-convention speech in New Jersey, near the Statue of Liberty. While the informal opening date of the general election campaign is traditionally Labor Day, Reagan continued to campaign during August, and on August 3, 1980, spoke at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. The Neshoba Fair is large and popular, which probably explains why Democratic Senator John Glenn campaigned there in 1983, when seeking the presidential nomination, and why Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis spoke there during the 1988 general election campaign, shortly after being nominated by the Democratic Convention.

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.

Reagan’s Neshoba speech was 33 paragraphs, consisting almost entirely of remarks about economics and jokes about Jimmy Carter. In the middle of the speech, he discussed his experience with welfare reform as Governor of California. He began by rebutting the idea that people on welfare are lazy and don’t want to work. To the contrary, said Reagan, they were just trapped by bureaucracy. Welfare, education, and other programs would work better for their beneficiaries if they were managed by state and local governments, rather than federally:

“I don’t believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they’re trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.

“I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement].

“I  believe  in  state’s  rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

A rather mainstream sentiment, even if some devotees of federal centralization might disagree with it. Indeed, the bipartisan welfare reform law signed by President Clinton carried out Reagan’s vision, by returning much of the control of federal welfare programs to the states.

Some ignorant people claim that “state’s rights” is just a euphemism for racism. The phrase certainly has been sometimes been misused that way, but it is false to claim that the phrase is necessarily racist. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced the “States’ Rights to Medical Marijuana Act” in the 107th, 108th, and 109th Congresses.

Reagan ended up winning Mississippi by 1.4% of the vote. Both Reagan and Carter were politically smart to take the opportunity to speak before large audiences in the rural South in states where the election would be close. 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.

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