Commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
LOS ANGELES - It is no surprise that the conservative political consultant Michael Reagan would try to rewrite the historical record with a wildly inaccurate, absolutely ridiculous assertion that his late father, Ronald Reagan, was a “better friend of blacks” than President Obama. Normally, the best response to such a statement—made in a Fox News op-ed, no less—would be hysterical laughter and nothing more. But the timing of the op-ed cannot be ignored. It’s a taste of what will come as the nation approaches the centennial of Reagan’s birth in February—and the sanitizing of the former president’s image and legacy begins in earnest.
Race is one issue Mike Reagan should avoid at all costs if he wants to protect his father’s reputation. During their eight years in the White House, Reagan and his appointees waged a well-documented, highly public war against civil rights leaders and did everything in their political power to roll back civil rights gains. That war began months before Reagan entered the White House. At his infamous presidential kick-off campaign rally at Neshoba, Miss., in 1980, held virtually a stone’s throw from where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, Reagan shouted to an all-white crowd: “I believe in states’ rights.” He laced that speech—and many others during his campaign—with racial code words and phrases, blasting welfare, big government, and rampant federal spending. The message was that if elected, he would not only say and do as little as possible to offend the white South, he would work to actively undermine civil rights.
Another campaign target was the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which he branded as "humiliating to the South." The implication was that he would not support an extension of the Act when it came up for renewal in 1982—a position he backed away from only in the face of strong opposition from congressional Democrats (and many Republicans).
At his first White House press conference, the week after his inauguration, Reagan lashed out at affirmative action programs, telling 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." The checklist of Reagan anti–civil rights and anti-black initiatives soon grew as thick as a telephone book. The president gutted the Civil Rights Commission, slashed and burned an array of federally funded job and training programs, and trashed welfare recipients as “queens.” He stacked the federal judiciary with strict-constructionist, states’- rights judges; approved a wave of Justice Department indictments and prosecutions of black elected officials; and dragged his feet on imposing Congressionally mandated sanctions on apartheid South Africa. That he repeatedly mocked civil rights leaders almost goes without saying.
The Reagan attacks were so intense that the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights was moved to issue a lengthy 1982 report that meticulously documented the measures taken by his Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to stymie and obstruct enforcement of civil rights laws. Then there was Reagan’s dogged prodding of the IRS to reverse course and grant a tax exemption to all-white Bob Jones University in South Carolina in 1982. Only after a firestorm of congressional and public outrage at his naked attempt to prop up a blatantly segregated institution did Reagan back down.
What’s more, the one civil rights act that Reagan is praised for—the signing of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday bill in November 1983—was hardly proof of his racial enlightenment. Reagan staunchly opposed the bill—and not, as historical revisionists claim, solely because the federal government couldn’t afford to give it employees another day off. That assertion is just another attempt to make his resistance seem politically palatable
In fact, at a press conference in the fall of 1983, Reagan quipped that he’d sign the bill only “since Congress seemed bent on making it a national holiday.” Congress passed the holiday bill by 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 the bill honoring King. At the same press conference, he added with a wink and a nod that the jury was still out on whether King was a Communist sympathizer. Reagan revealed even more of his true thinking about King in a letter to ultra-conservative former New Hampshire governor Meldrim Thomson. He unapologetically told Thomson that the public’s view of King was “based on image, not reality.” Reagan was roundly criticized for besmirching King, and he later publicly apologized to King’s widow, Coretta. In assailing King, Reagan followed the age-old ultra-conservative and racist script that King was a radical and racial agitator.
Michael Reagan can try to absurdly twist history to make his father a civil rights paragon. 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.