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December 19, 2002, 8:45 a.m.
Reagan, Lott, and Race Baiting
Reviewing the record.

By Steven Hayward

ime magazine's premier race-baiter, Jack White, is using the Trent Lott controversy as a means of attacking Republicans across the board as a racist party. And above all he can't resist attacking Ronald Reagan.

In a Time magazine piece this week that is available online, White wrote:

Lott was among those who urged Reagan to deliver his first major campaign speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in one of the 1960s' ugliest cases of racist violence. It was a ringing declaration of his support for "states' rights" — a code word for resistance to black advances clearly understood by white Southern voters.



  

Here is what Reagan actually said:

What we have to do is bring back the recognition that the people of this country can solve its problems. I still believe the answer to any problem lies with the people. I believe in state's rights and I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment. (Emphasis added.)

To be sure, it is difficult to imagine that Reagan was oblivious to the historical baggage of the phrase "states' rights" in Mississippi, and it cannot be ruled out that he was conscious of the problematic implication of his choice of words, just as Jimmy Carter was not presumed innocent of his use of "ethnic purity" in 1976. But "states' rights" was a sound principle of federalism that was debased by Democratic party rule in the south, for which it is not Republicans who owe an apology. Reagan had a long and well-known record of criticizing centralized government power, and this is how the media at the time interpreted his statement. "Most of those at the rally," the New York Times reported, "apparently regarded the statement as having been made in that context." And as a westerner Reagan had fully associated himself with the "Sagebrush Rebellion," for whom "states' rights" had no racial content, but rather meant wresting control of land from Washington. This was far from an outlandish or minority view. The same day Reagan made his "states' rights" remark in Mississippi, the National Governors Association issued what the Associated Press described as "a militant call for reduced federal involvement in state and local affairs." Arizona's liberal Democratic Governor Bruce Babbitt wrote in a New York Times op-ed article that "It is time to take hard look at 'states' rights' — and responsibilities — and to sort out the respective functions of the federal government and the states." I missed where Jack White added Babbitt to his roster of racists (never mind Carter's calculated appeal to "ethnic purity" in 1976).

To liberals, however, employing the phrase "states' rights" in any context is to waive the bloody shirt of racism and segregation. Little time was wasted in accusing Reagan not simply of pandering to old-fashioned segregationist sentiment in the south, but of actively sympathizing with it. Patricia Harris, Carter's secretary of Health and Human Services, told a steelworkers' union conference in early August: "I will not attempt to explain why the KKK found the Republican candidate and the Republican platform compatible with the philosophy and guiding principles of that notorious organization." (A KKK chapter in Louisiana had scored some cheap publicity by endorsing Reagan in 1980, which endorsement Reagan immediately and forcefully rejected.) But, Harris added, when Reagan speaks before black audiences many blacks "will see the specter of a white sheet behind him." Andrew Young went even further, saying that Reagan's remarks seemed "like a code word to me that it's going to be all right to kill niggers when he's President." Coretta Scott King managed to top Young: "I am scared that if Ronald Reagan gets into office, we are going to see more of the Ku Klux Klan and a resurgence of the Nazi Party." Maryland Congressman Parren Mitchell, a leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that " Reagan represents a distinct danger to black Americans." Reagan, it should be noted, received the endorsement of several black leaders in 1980, including the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, Martin Luther King's successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, and the Rev. Hosea Williams, another prominent cleric from the civil rights movement.

Even the bastions of media liberalism knew that attacking Reagan as a racist was wrong. The New Republic: "President Carter has made a grave moral error in trying to portray Ronald Reagan as a racist." Carter's statements "are frightful distortions, bordering on outright lies." Washington Post reporter Richard Harwood wrote that "There is nothing in Reagan's record to support the charge that he was 'racist.'" The editorial page of the Post said that "This description [as a racist] doesn't fit Mr. Reagan."

The race-baiting attack on Reagan in 1980 backfired badly against Jimmy Carter, and contributed to Carter's defeat. As in 1980, liberals may be about to overreach on the Lott affair in much the same way, so long as Republicans will follow Reagan's example of standing on their principles.


— Steven Hayward is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Age of Reagan, from which this article is adapted.

Miles Gone By

William F. Buckley Jr.'s literary autobiography

Buy it through NR

 
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