The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Prejudice and hatred should not exist in America. My father understood that.

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan walk with Barbara and Phillip Butler and their daughter, Natasha, outside the family's home in Maryland on May 3, 1982.
President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan walk with Barbara and Phillip Butler and their daughter, Natasha, outside the family's home in Maryland on May 3, 1982. (Barry Thumma/AP)

Patti Davis is the author of, most recently, “The Earth Breaks in Colors” and is the daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

On the morning of May 3, 1982, my father read a story in The Post about a black family in Maryland — the Butlers — who’d had a cross burned on their lawn in 1977. William M. Aitcheson, an “exalted cyclops” of the Ku Klux Klan, was charged with the crime. Now, five years later, a federal judge had ordered him to pay the Butlers a civil judgment of $23,000. Except Aitcheson had apparently disappeared. When my father went down to the Oval Office that morning, he announced that he wanted to go visit the Butlers — that day.

A little after 4 p.m., my father and mother boarded Marine One and flew to Maryland, and a motorcade took them along quiet rural streets to College Park Woods, pulling up to a tan brick home. Waiting for them were Barbara and Phillip Butler, their 4-year-old daughter, Natasha, and Barbara Butler’s mother, Dorothea Tolson. My father had brought along a jar of jelly beans to give them. My parents sat with them in their living room and listened to what they had been subjected to as one of only five black families in the area. A car had driven onto their front lawn and taken out their lamppost. Garbage had been dumped onto their property. Then came the cross-burning. The cross was six feet tall and heavy. It was doubtful that Aitcheson had carried out the burning alone, but he had been the only one charged.

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“This isn’t something that should ever happen in America,” my father told them.

I’m very aware that my father’s policies, especially on the subject of welfare, did not make him popular within the black community. One of my father’s complexities was that, just as he was physically nearsighted, he could be myopic in other ways. A story that he could hold close, such as the Butlers’, was something he instantly responded to and acted on out of compassion and humanity. But the larger, more distant picture of thousands of families who would face hardships because of his policies didn’t resonate in the same way. It is too bad someone didn’t take him into the homes of people affected by welfare cuts; his policies might have changed.

Thirty-five years later, another president learned of neo-Nazis marching through the streets of Charlottesville, which had led to the death of a young woman who bravely came out to counterprotest. The president’s reaction: “There are very fine people on both sides.”

This isn’t something that should ever happen in America.

We need to remember this when a campaign ad put out by the current president’s political team is so racist that even Fox News won’t run it. Or when the president proudly calls himself a nationalist and berates black female journalists, calling their questions “stupid” and them incompetent.

We need to remember, when children are ripped from their mothers’ arms and put into cages, that there was a time when such a thing wouldn’t happen in this country. These days, when blatant racism has been allowed to emerge from the shadows and sweep through neighborhoods, so that young black boys are yelled at for mowing a neighbor’s lawn, we need to think about how other presidents — including my father — viewed leadership. He felt a responsibility to comfort victims of hatred. He accepted the gift and the burden of reminding us that greatness is achieved not by might but by how we treat one another as human beings.

We will never be free of history. There will always be the echoes of whips, and tree branches scarred by ropes and the ghosts of bodies swaying in the air. America’s darkest chapters should haunt us all. They should also teach us about the cost of bigotry — the cost to our humanity, the cost to our souls.

But there will always be the echoes of small moments in our history, too. Such as an afternoon when a man, moved by a story, visited a family and — knowing the impact his visit would have, because he held the highest office in the land — told them that prejudice and hatred should not exist in America. We need to remember stories such as this so that we can find our way back to who we are supposed to be.

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