As president, in the same March 1983 speech in which he called the Soviet regime an “evil empire,” Reagan decried “the resurgence of some hate groups preaching bigotry and prejudice” in America. And at a reception for the National Council of Negro Women in July of that year, Reagan declared: “I’ve lived a long time, but I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t believe that prejudice and bigotry were the worst of sins.”
These are just a few examples of Reagan’s sensitivity to racial discrimination. This attitude was instilled by his mother, who was deeply involved in the Disciples of Christ, and his father, who refused to allow him to see the movie “Birth of a Nation” because it glorified the Ku Klux Klan.
But you don’t get any sense of that in the film “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”
Based on an article by The Washington Post’s Wil Haygood, adapted for the screen by Danny Strong and directed by Daniels, “The Butler” is the story of Eugene Allen, an inspiring African American who worked under eight presidents in the White House, Reagan among them. As historians of the 40th president, having written more than a dozen biographies between us, we are troubled by the movie’s portrayal of Reagan’s attitudes toward race. We are especially concerned because many Americans readily accept Hollywood depictions of history as factual.
Two particular incidents in the film concern us:
The butler character (played by Forest Whitaker) is invited by the Reagans to a state dinner, a gracious move wholly typical of the first family. The butler’s wife (Oprah Winfrey) clearly enjoys the evening, but the butler is portrayed as uncomfortable. He feels he’s being used as a political tool, a prop, a token African American. Shortly after this supposed humiliation, he resigns from his White House job.
In reality, Allen felt no such thing. As noted by Religion News Service, “He was especially fond of the Reagans.” A member of Allen’s church recalled that “he often talked about how nice they were to him.” Allen did leave the White House during the Reagan administration, but as Haygood’s profile mentioned, he received a “sweet note” from the president and a hug from the first lady.
Another questionable moment in the film relates to apartheid. Reagan is shown telling a Republican congresswoman that he will veto any sanctions against South Africa. The lawmaker pleads with the president, insisting that sanctions are the moral course and that Republicans are on board. Reagan refuses to budge, offering no reason for his stubborn support of the racist regime, apparently unsympathetic to black suffering.
The unfairness of this scene can be demonstrated by any number of historical facts. In June 1981, still recovering from an assassination attempt, Reagan sent his closest foreign policy aide, William Clark, on his first official trip; it was to South Africa to express America’s disapproval. An unsmiling Clark told Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha to his face that the new president and administration “abhorred apartheid.” Clark walked out on Botha.
While accurate in depicting Reagan’s opposition to sanctions against South Africa, “The Butler” does not explain why he opposed them. Reagan saw sanctions as harmful to the poorest South Africans: millions of blacks living in dire poverty. He also feared that the apartheid regime could be replaced by a Marxist/totalitarian one allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba and that communism would spread throughout the continent. South Africa’s blacks were denied rights under apartheid, but communism would mean no freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, conscience, emigration, travel or even property for anyone. Moreover, in communist nations such as Cambodia and Ethiopia, people had been slaughtered and starved on mass scales. Nearly a dozen nations had become part of the Soviet orbit in the immediate years before Reagan became president. He didn’t want South Africa to undergo the same catastrophe.
Reagan adopted a policy of “constructive engagement,” seeking to keep South Africa in the anti-Soviet faction while encouraging the country toward black-majority rule — no easy feat. In one of his finest speeches, he told the United Nations on Sept. 24, 1984, that it was “a moral imperative that South Africa’s racial policies evolve peacefully but decisively toward . . . justice, liberty and human dignity.” Among his administration’s successes was the Angola-Namibia agreement, which led to the withdrawal of the white South African regime from Namibia and paved the way for that nation’s independence.
“The Butler” doesn’t deal with any of this complexity. Instead, it perpetuates an ahistorical caricature of Reagan as racially insensitive.
For decades, Reagan’s legacy has been unfairly dogged by claims that his 1980 presidential campaign was marked by the use of code words and symbols that accommodated white racists. Critics point, for instance, to his post-convention appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. Civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner had been killed in nearby Philadelphia, Miss., in 1964, and some commentators say Reagan was insensitive to this tragedy when he said, “I believe in states’ rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can . . . at the private level.” But the former California governor, a strong believer in federalism, had been talking about states’ rights since the early days of his political career.
Two days after his appearance in Mississippi, Reagan affirmed his position on civil rights. “I am committed to the protection and enforcement of the civil rights of black Americans,” he told the Urban League in New York City. “This commitment is interwoven into every phase of the programs I will propose.” He received generous applause from the predominantly black audience.
Reagan didn’t make much headway with black voters during his presidential campaign, but he certainly tried, holding the Republican National Convention in Detroit (the first time either party had done so) and campaigning in the Bronx with a message of hope. He was endorsed by Hosea Williams, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s top deputy in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and by Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
While president, Reagan didn’t help his case with black voters when, in an October 1983 news conference, he fumbled a question about whether King had been a communist sympathizer. However, Reagan called Coretta Scott King to apologize, and the next month he signed Martin Luther King Jr. Day into law in the presence of King’s widow and children.
Few in today’s civil rights community will admit it, but the Reagan administration rescued civil rights law from the political and constitutional dead end of quotas and racial redistribution. For example, the Reagan Justice Department applied a higher threshold of proof of discriminatory intent before an employment discrimination case could be brought to court. Previously, companies were presumptively guilty of discrimination if there was a statistical disparity between the racial makeup of that company’s workforce and the demographics of the surrounding labor pool. It was difficult, expensive and cumbersome to challenge this presumption, which is why most companies settled with Justice quota schemes.
The Reagan administration’s civil rights policy was guided by the notion that remedies should be directed toward individual victims of discrimination rather than to classes or racial groups. In some areas of the law, such as employment discrimination cases, civil rights enforcement activity increased relative to its pace under the Carter administration.
Films like “The Butler” can be good opportunities for a healthy consideration of our troubled racial history, but not if they persist with inaccurate portrayals. Rather than advancing a flawed portrait of Reagan on race, perhaps “The Butler” can start the process of getting Reagan right on race.
Read more from Outlook:
Five myths about Ronald Reagan
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