It is no surprise that former President Reagan’s son, conservative political consultant Michael Reagan would add his unabashed and wildly inaccurate historical revisionism about Reagan with his absolutely ridiculous assertion in a Fox News op-ed piece that dad, Reagan was a “better friend of blacks” than President Obama. Normally that would be the cause for hysterical laughter except that that fits in with the inevitable sanitizing of former President Reagan’s image and legacy as the nation approaches the centennial commemoration of Reagan’s birth in February.
Race is exactly the one issue that Mike can make absolutely no claim to truth about Reagan on. Reagan and Reagan officials waged a by now well-documented open war against civil rights leaders and did everything politically possible to roll back civil rights gains during his eight years in office. That war began months before he took office. At his now infamous presidential kick-off campaign rally at Neshoba, Mississippi in 1980, held virtually a stone throw from where the three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, Reagan shouted to a lily white crowd that “I believe in states’ rights.” He laced his campaign speech with stock racial code words and phrases, blasting welfare, big government, federal intrusion in state affairs, and rampant federal spending. The message was that if elected he’d not only say and do as little as possible to offend the white South, but actively undermine civil rights. At his first press conference the week after his inauguration, Reagan lashed out at affirmative action programs. He told reporters, “I’m old enough to remember when quotas existed in the United States for purposes of discrimination and I don’t want to see that again.”
That was just the start. During the 1980 presidential campaign, he publicly branded the voting rights act “humiliating to the South.” The implication was that he would not back an extension of the Voting Rights Act when it came up for renewal in 1982. He backed away from that only in the face of strong support from Congressional democrats (and many Republicans).
The checklist of Reagan anti-civil rights initiatives however soon grew to be telephone book thick. They included his gut of the Civil Rights Commission, his attempt to eliminate and slash and burn of an array of federally funded job and training programs, his borderline racist depiction of welfare recipients as “queens,” his stack of the federal judiciary with strict constructionist, states’ rights leaning judges, the wave of Reagan approved Justice Department indictments, prosecutions and harassment of black elected officials, his foot drag on imposing congressional mandated sanctions on then apartheid South Africa, and his repeated mock of civil rights leaders.
The Reagan assault on civil rights was so intense that the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in 1982 issued a lengthy report that meticulously documented the measures the Reagan Administration Justice Department and especially its Civil Rights Division did to stymie and obstruct enforcement of civil rights laws. Then there was his dogged fight to prod the IRS to reverse its decision to deny a tax exemption to all white Bob Jones University in South Carolina in 1982. Reagan backed away from this only after a firestorm of congressional and public outrage at his naked effort to prop up a blatantly segregated institution.
The one civil rights act that Reagan is praised for as an example of his racial enlightenment, the signing of the King Holiday Bill, was anything but that. Reagan staunchly opposed the King Holiday bill. And he did not oppose it as later historical revisionists claim solely for cost reasons, that is that the federal government couldn’t afford to give federal employees another day off. This is the politically palatable cover.
At a press conference October 19 two weeks before he grudgingly signed the bill he quipped that he’d sign it only “since Congress seemed bent on making it a national holiday.” It took every ounce of the congressional bent that Reagan ridiculed to get him to put his signature on the bill. Congress passed the bill with an overwhelming veto-proof majority (338 to 90 in the House of Representatives and 78 to 22 in the Senate).
Reagan didn’t stop at simply voicing reservations about Congress’s action in passing the bill. At the same press conference he also added with a wink and a nod that the jury was still out on whether King was a communist sympathizer or not. Reagan revealed even more of his true thinking about King in a letter to ultra-conservative former New Hampshire governor Meldrim Thompson. He unapologetically told Thompson that the public’s view of King was “based on image, not reality.” Reagan was roundly criticized for besmirching King, and he subsequently publicly apologized to King’s widow, Coretta Scott King. In assailing King, Reagan simply followed the well-worn ultra-conservative and racist script that King was a radical, racial agitator, and a closet communist.
Michael Reagan can absurdly twist history decades later to make his father a paragon of civil rights. But the Reagan record of hostility, obstructionism, and outright opposition to civil rights gains and civil rights leaders stands. This is hardly the action of a “best friend” of blacks.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk shows on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles. This post was republished, with his permission.