Then came the modern civil rights movement, followed by the civil rights acts of the '60s. Southern whites knew their world had forever changed. Racism -- legally, politically and morally -- was in full retreat. With segregation as a dying issue, Southerners turned their attention to other matter: low taxes, smaller government and support for the Vietnam War and a strong national defense. The Republican Party fit their political views and cultural values more than did the Democratic Party. How could the GOP serve as a refuge for bigots when the party's House and Senate members voted for the civil rights acts, by percentage, more than did their Democratic counterparts?
But didn't Reagan appeal to Southern racism by giving a "states' rights" speech in Philadelphia, Miss., a town immortalized in the movie "Mississippi Burning"? In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered there. To the left, "states' rights" is code for preferred parking at a Klan rally.
Reagan spoke for 15 minutes at the Neshoba County Fair, about seven miles outside of Philadelphia, in that politically "in-play" state carried by Jimmy Carter four years earlier by 14,000 votes. Eight years later, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis spoke at the same Neshoba fair.
Here's what Reagan said at the fair about "states' rights": "Programs like education and others that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states' rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and the private level."
Not exactly, "Turn back the clock!" And immediately following his speech, Reagan headed to New York, where he spoke before the Urban League, one of the nation's oldest black civil rights organizations.
Yes, Reagan opposed race-based government "affirmative action." Democratic icon President Jack Kennedy, in a 1963 interview, said: "I don't think we can undo the past. In fact, the past is going to be with us for a good many years in uneducated men and women who lost their chance for a decent education. We have to do the best we can now ... but not hard and fast quotas. We are too mixed, this society of ours, to begin to divide ourselves on the basis of race or color."
Even among blacks in the 1960s, there was opposition to state-sponsored racial preferences. Bayard Rustin, a top MLK aide who was gay, opposed preferences. So did the National Urban League board of directors.
Reagan hired future Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and future Secretary of State Colin Powell. He signed legislation making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday and signed an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act for another 25 years. He granted amnesty to nearly 3 million illegal aliens.
Ronald Reagan was no racist. Happy 100th, Mr. President.