It has somehow become part of conventional wisdom that Ronald Reagan launched his 1980 presidential campaign with a blatant appeal to southern racism by engaging in a vigorous defense of "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964. I've read it myself so often I was sure that it was true.
Out of curiosity, I looked up contemporary articles on Nexis, because I wondered why I don't remember this being much more controverisal at the time (I was only 13, but I followed the election daily in the NY Times). I discovered that the convential story has a kernel of truth, but is wrong in [many of] its details. I was going to blog about this in detail, but see that James Taranto and David Brooks [and Bruce Bartlett] already beat me to it, pointing out, among other things, that Reagan mentioned "states' rights" only once in the speech, in a reference to federalism in economic policy, not race [the speech is available in MP3 here; interestingly, contrary to what I've always heard was Reagan's typical "welfare queen" speech, when he discusses welfare he suggests that people on welfare don't want to be on it, want to work and join the economic mainstream, but are stifled by the bureaucracy acting in its own interest]; that Reagan almost skipped the speech entirely; and that the speech was given at a county fair near, but not in, Philadelphia; and that he gave a speech the next day to the Urban League, which hardly suggests that this was the day his campaign intended to start a race-related controversy.
A few things Taranto doesn't mention, that Nexis reveals: Reagan gave this speech on August 3, 1980, the week after the Republican convention, but at the time, no one thought of this as the "launch" of Reagan's campaign, because the Democratic convention was yet to come. This was considered the slow season before the campaign really started on Labor Day,
and the speech, according to a Times story in October 1980, received little initial coverage beyond the local newspaper [sorry, misread the Times story, which was actually referring to criticism by Andrew Young. The speech itself was covered in the inside pages of the Times and Washington Post, with the Times noting the reference to "states' rights"]. Reporters at the time reported that the audience didn't perceive that Reagan was referring to race [NY Times in October: "Although Mr. Reagan did not elaborate on that occasion, he later explained that he was referring to his proposal to shift certain taxing powers and social programs such as welfare from the Federal to the state level. Most of those at the rally apparently regarded the statement as having been made in that context"--if you listen to the speech, you can see the reference was indeed in that ocontext] and Reagan expert Lou Cannon reported that Reagan didn't usually talk about "states' rights" in his stump speech, but apparently ad-libbed the phrase that one time.
As far as the media was concerned, Reagan launched his campaign on Labor Day in Detroit, while Carter campaigned in Alabama. This itself became the subject of some controversy, when Reagan accused Carter of starting his campaign in a town that was the birthplace of the Klan. (He was wrong, though the town in question was the headquarters of one Klan branch.) "Outraged" southern Democrats said that Reagan had slurred the South and wouldn't win a single southern state (they were, of course, wrong).
The states' rights speech came up a few times in the campaign, but was hardly a major issue. Carter himself absolved Reagan of any intimations that Reagan was running a racist campaign in a nationally televised news conference [Carter, Sept. 17,1980: Reagan shouldn't have mentioned the Klan or "states' rights," but he is not "a racist in any degree."]
It was, of course, incredibly foolish and insensitive for Reagan to throw out the phrase "states rights" in Mississippi during his campaign. This is consistent with my general impression of Reagan's relationship with African Americans: he wasn't intentionally hostile, but was largely indifferent to their concerns and sensitivities, and their voting patterns gave him little reason to change once he become president.
But the prevalent idea that Reagan's campaign marked a turning point in American history because he overtly appealed to southern racists by launching his campaign with a "states' rights speech" in Philadelphia, Mississppi, just isn't right. Ironically, it was Carter, not Reagan, who launched his 1980 campaign in a town deeply associated with racism (though Carter had no discernable racist intent in doing so).
UPDATE: I did a bit more Nexis digging. Reporters did state at the time that the speech was "in Philadelphia," though it was actually just the closest town to the county fair. Lou Cannon reported that some Reagan advisors wanted Reagan to skip the speech because the proximity to Philadelphia was bad symbolism, especially since Reagan was planning a big push that week and beyond to get some of the black vote. Reagan could have done his historical legacy a big favor by skipping the speech and not mentioning "states' rights." However, the media coverage at the time still indicates that Reagan's campaign strategy at the time was to secure the Northeast and Midwest, and that his campaign hoped to get enough black votes (and allay concerns among moderates and liberals about his views on race) to help him achieve that objective. The campaign was still unsure whether the South was sufficiently promising to spend a lot of resources on (Carter had virtually swept the South in 1976).
So I still hold Reagan responsible for stupid and insensitive rhetoric, and his advisors were right to tell him to skip this event, which was in fact bad symbolism, made worse by the states' rights line. But the image of Reagan deliberately launching his campaign with a vigorous defense of states' rights in a blatant appeal to southern racism at the "launch" of his campaign still isn't right. It's more like, "in the downtime between the Republican and Democratic conventions, Reagan was desperately at this time seeking to attract some black votes in the North, while some of his advisors held out hope of winning some southern states. Some of his campaign advisors were savvy enough to realize that the Mississippi speech would create problems for the first goal. Others of his advisors, and Reagan himself, were not sufficiently attuned to African American sensibilities to recognize that giving a speech to an overwhelmingly white audience in Mississippi, and ad-libbing a reference to states' rights, would seriously undermine the campaign's main objective for the week, which was to build sufficient bridges to African Americans to undermine Carter's chances in the Northeast and Midwest." "Dog whistle politics" doesn't explain a reference to "states' rights" in Mississippi with Washington Post and N.Y. Times reporters in the audience, nor would it explain why Reagan then flew to an Urban League meeting to declare in a major speech "I am committed to the protection and enforcement of the civil rights of black Americans. This commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose." He then "made the obligatory visit to the debris-strewn South Bronx, traveled to a black publishing company in Chicago and dropped by Jackson's Operation PUSH headquarters — all in the same day."
So Reagan wound up undermining his own efforts to court the votes of African Americans and those concerned with civil rights issues, and Blacks wound up with the impression that Reagan was largely indifferent to their concerns and sensibilities, and they were probably right. But the actual chain of events is much more nuanced than what I had been led to believe by the conventional story. Indeed, instead of "Reagan deliberately spoke in racist code to pursue a southern strategy" it's more like "Reagan stupidly undermined his own campaign strategy through an ill-conceived reference to 'states rights' just before a major speech to the Urban League."