Reagan, the iconic former B-movie actor, California governor and two-term president, ushered in “Morning in America” through trickle-down economics that paved the way for the huge wealth gap the nation suffers from today.
Black America remembers Reagan much differently than apologists who claim him as a politically conservative figure who stood above the racist din of some of his more unseemly supporters.
As the Republican nominee for president in 1980, Reagan staged an Aug. 3 rally at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, an event that was weighted with racist symbolism. Neshoba County was the site of the brutal murders of the black activist James Chaney and white civil rights workers Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.
Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman were killed during 1964’s Mississippi Freedom Summer, a historic effort by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to bring democracy and racial justice to the Magnolia State. The interracial trio of activists went missing June 21 outside of tiny Philadelphia, Miss. Their bodies were recovered Aug. 4 in an earthen dam, and they have become enshrined as three of the most visible martyrs of the civil rights era.
The fact that two white men were murdered by a combination of racist law enforcement and white vigilantes lent their deaths more weight in the public’s imagination. Freedom Summer continued, with activists emboldened, rather than fearstruck, by acts of racial terror orchestrated by Mississippi officials. Almost 1,000 white volunteers bolstered the SNCC staff’s efforts to organize Freedom Schools, literacy and civics classes, voter registration and integrated libraries.
Reagan knew all of this and still held a raucous rally in Neshoba County, where he declared his allegiance to “states’ rights,” a dog whistle fully understood by the white people in attendance who embraced the conservative former California governor and actor as a political hero straight from central casting.
Reagan’s landslide presidential election in 1980 ushered in a conservative political epic in American politics deeply rooted in anti-black racism that we have yet to recover from. Reagan’s assaults on Great Society anti-poverty and social welfare efforts were made clear during his first inauguration speech in 1981. Against the backdrop of an economic crisis that — like the Great Recession of 2008 and the current covid-19 pandemic — disproportionately impacted black communities, Reagan claimed that “government was the problem” and not the solution for a nation fast receding from Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of a “Beloved Community” free of racial and economic injustice.
Reagan’s effective use of racist symbolism had a long history. During his successful 1966 gubernatorial race, he denounced Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael, he vilified the Black Panthers as violent domestic threats to law and order, and he partially blamed King’s willingness to disobey segregationist laws for the civil rights leader’s assassination.
Reagan’s use of the term “welfare queen” — which he made synonymous with caricature of lazy black women as ghetto grifters getting rich at taxpayers’ expense — during his unsuccessful 1976 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination made him a star among white conservatives.
Perhaps most important, Reagan proved to be an ideological game-changer, attracting white working-class Democrats, inspiring bipartisan support for tax policies that hurt the poor, and passing crime bills (with an assist from Democrats such as then-Sen. Joe Biden) that helped bolster an already racist criminal justice system with new resources to punish and criminalize a black community reeling from the broken promises of the civil rights era.
But Trump’s embrace of white supremacy in symbol and substance is not new. The Grand Old Party’s betrayal of its anti-slavery origins as the party of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln is rooted in the political realignment of the civil rights era that found white Democrats swarming to the Republican Party in fear and disgust over an unfolding political revolution that featured civil rights and voting rights legislation and incrementally successful efforts to desegregate public schools and neighborhoods. The Democratic Party of George Wallace, the legendary Alabama segregationist, became the party of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and in the process attracted a new generation of black voters while losing sizable numbers of whites. It would take decades for this realignment to find permanent roots at the local level, but this has now been achieved.
Trump is the natural extension of a Republican Party that offered a big enough tent to fit a wide spectrum of anti-black racists and white supremacists. From the intellectually minded intolerance of William F. Buckley to the less temperate rhetoric of Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater to the more putrid racial denunciations of Wallace, the GOP has betrayed its sacred roots in abolitionism in order to take up the banner of the “Lost Cause.”
Is it any wonder then that the president opposes the idea of renaming military bases dishonored by association with a Confederate war criminal who committed treason against the United States during the Civil War? That war was fought over racial slavery and whether America could be an interracial democracy that protected the rights of all citizens by achieving, for the first time, guaranteed dignity and citizenship for African Americans.
Trump’s almost four-year effort to reorganize and make claims to a new Confederacy presided over from the White House is complete. The fact that Trump has moved his rally by one day, ostensibly to recognize Juneteenth, is irrelevant because his message of racial intolerance remains the same. From now until Election Day, MAGA rallies will serve primarily as spectacles of political rage designed to distract from the Trump administration’s failure to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and the rising tide of Black Lives Matter protests that have gripped the nation since the public execution of George Floyd.
Racial justice protests over the past three weeks in over 140 cities have burned illusions of racial progress but also offered a chance for an honest reckoning of the social and political ills of American democracy. As NASCAR bans Confederate flags at events and students at the University of Texas demand the “Eyes of Texas” no longer be played because of its roots in racial intolerance, America is coming to a long overdue acknowledgment of racial injustice. On this score the president’s desperate efforts to galvanize his base through naked appeals to symbols of white supremacy and anti-black racism serve as an important reminder of the long roots of our racially divided society and the distance we still have to travel to finally achieve our country.