The Other Presidential Candidate’s “Race” Speech

By Guest Columnist Apr 01, 2008

By Victor Goode In the aftermath of Obama’s speech on race, many pundits seemed at a loss about how to analyze it or what to compare it to. It didn’t have the evangelical sweep of Kings eloquent oratory, or the rhythmic cadences of a Jesse Jackson. It certainly wasn’t the strident militancy of a Malcolm X. Some said it had a Kennedy like quality, but since JFK never gave a campaign speech about race they likened it to his speech about religious bias. Many pundits picked apart Obama’s speech, more for what they claim it didn’t say than for what it did. Strangely, they forgot that another presidential candidate had given a speech that was very much about race, but was scarcely characterized that way either then or now. In 1980, eager to attack the weakened presidency of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan kicked off his campaign for the presidency with a speech, in of all places, the Neshoba County Fair just outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi. His defenders say this choice was innocent of any “racial message.” After all, Carter was elected in 1976 because he had carried the South and the Republicans felt they had to steal some of Carter’s base to defeat him in 1980. But on closer examination those rationales ring hollow. Mississippi only had seven electoral votes—hardly the prize of a real battleground state. Virginia or North Carolina with nearly twice Mississippi’s electoral votes would have been a more logical choice. It was clear that the kick off of their “southern strategy” was not just about votes—it was about white votes. Philadelphia, Mississippi, with its history of racism was chosen to send a message that the Republicans, long characterized as the party of “big business” were poised to take over on matters of race where the “Dixiecrats” left off. In his address, Reagan didn’t use the “segregation forever” slogans of the old southern politicians. Instead he spoke about “states rights,” polite code words for segregation. He called for “less federal” involvement in the affairs of the states knowing that up to that point the only real efforts to enforce civil rights laws had come from the federal government. Federal marshals had escorted James Meredith into the University of Mississippi, and federal authorities had unsuccessfully attempted to prosecute the murderers of Medgar Evers. And it was the federal Justice Department that had investigated the murders of the three young civil rights workers Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman who were murdered by Klansmen only a few miles from where presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan spoke those words. Reagan’s message about race couldn’t have been clearer, and Philadelphia, Mississippi provided the old actor with the perfect set for his “race card” performance. This scarcely veiled attack was not just directed to the federal courts and Carter’s Justice Department. It was a message to whites and Blacks throughout the South that the civil rights partnership with the federal government, strained though it always had been, was about to come to an abrupt end. There was much the pundits could have said about these two very important speeches on race. Obama spoke about a hopeful future of racial reconciliation, but Reagan openly identified with a shameful past. Where Obama recognized the reality of race in America, including its complexities, Reagan acted as if the Mississippi Delta’s poor Blacks, living in shanties and attending segregated schools, were no more unusual than magnolias in the spring. Reagan’s “states’ rights” rhetoric was not without its tragic fulfillment. He would go on to embrace segregation in Bob Jones University, vigorously oppose affirmative action, foot-drag on school desegregation and appoint federal judges that characterized the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment as a mere historical relic. So what do we learn from what the pundits failed to see? History does matter. Words do give us a glimpse of the future and obscuring the realities of race, as the press was so quick to do with Ronald Reagan, both then and now point to the very real dangers of reliving a past if we allow it to conveniently be forgotten. Victor Goode is a law professor at City University of New York Law School.