I’ve been having a discussion (or debate) with Michael Westmoreland-White about Ronald Reagan’s 1980 speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi (see Star Trek: Science Fiction for Progressives). This was Reagan’s first public appearance after the 1980 Republican National Convention, and he made a reference in that speech to “state’s rights.” The debate is this: Was Reagan trying to court Southern racists through a racist code-phrase? “State’s rights,” after all, was used by the South to support the “right” of Southern states to have slavery and racial segregation.
I’m not going to discuss the arguments of Reagan’s defenders and detractors, but here are some good articles. While most of them are pro-Reagan, there are plenty of anti-Reagan people who comment on them, so what follows is a good sample of the debate:
David Brooks, “History and Calumny (Pro-Reagan)
Bruce Bartlett, “Reagan, Neshoba, and the Politics of Race” (Pro-Reagan)
Lou Cannon, “Reagan’s Southern Stumble” (Pro-Reagan)
Larry Elder, “Did Ronald Reagan ‘Torture’ Blacks?” (Pro-Reagan)
Joseph Crespino, “Did David Brooks Tell the Full Story About Reagan’s Neshoba County Fair Visit” (Anti-Reagan)
Bob Herbert, “Righting Reagan’s Wrongs” (Anti-Reagan)
Jed Lewison, “Reagan’s revisionists are still lying, and here’s why it matters” (Anti-Reagan)
Reagan talks about a lot of his usual topics: inflation, unemployment, regulations, America’s standing in the world, Moscow, Jimmy Carter, etc. What follows is his lead-up into his discussion of state’s rights, as well as his use of the phrase:
But I think even more important on a broader scale [is] in doing that, what we will have to do is to bring back to this country what is so evident here: Bring back the recognition that the people of this country can solve the problems, that we don’t have anything to be afraid of as long as we have the people of America.
[In] more recent years with the best intention, they have created a vast bureaucracy, or a bureaucratic structure-bureaus and departments and agencies-to try and solve all the problems and eliminate all the things of human misery that they can. They have forgotten that when you create a government bureaucracy, no matter how well intentioned it is, almost instantly its top priority becomes preservation of the bureaucracy.
Today, and I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare, I know that one of the great tragedies of welfare in America today, and I don’t believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they’re trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.
I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement]. I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.
Is Reagan criticizing civil rights for African-Americans in this speech? On the one hand, one can read this line in light of Reagan’s overall philosophy of government: that federal bureaucrats cannot solve America’s problems as well as the people, states, and local governments. His reference to education may serve to highlight that states and local governments should support their schools rather than looking to the federal government for help. This was significant in 1980 because President Carter had established the Department of Education, which Reagan vowed to abolish. One could argue that Reagan was simply giving your typical Reagan speech, excoriating the evils of big government.
On the other hand, I can understand why Reagan’s detractors would see “state’s rights” as a code word for allowing the South to keep segregation. Schools were a central issue in the debate over civil rights for African-Americans, ever since the 1954 Brown vs. The Board of Education Supreme Court decision. For two decades, Southern school districts defied or evaded the U.S. Government’s order for them to integrate. Only when President Richard Nixon threatened to cut off federal funds to segregated school districts did they begin to get their act together.
But Reagan did not want public schools to depend on the federal government for funding. He felt that states and local communities themselves should handle education and “the tax sources to fund them.” That would arguably deprive the federal government of its chief method to enforce integration: withhold federal funding from the school dictricts that failed to integrate. Local school districts would then be able to do what they wanted with the money, which could include supporting segregated schools. Conservatives like to argue that “federal funding means federal control,” but, in the area of desegregation, that’s precisely what a lot of liberals desired for public schools!
Whether or not Reagan’s Neshoba County speech was implicitly criticizing federal desegregation of schools is a subject of debate. I do, however, appreciate his take on welfare in that speech, for he presents welfare recipients as people who are trapped in the system, which is designed to support the bureaucrats rather than those it professes to serve. He adds an element of humanity to the welfare debate.