Coach McKinzie angrily replied that the entire team would sleep on the bus that night. Dad spoke up and offered an alternative: Why not send Burgie and Jim to the Reagan home in Dixon, just 15 miles away? Dad's parents, Jack and Nelle Reagan, would welcome his teammates -- and the whole team would get a good night's rest.
In his autobiography, "An American Life," Dad recalled, "We went to my house and I rang the bell and Nelle came to the door. . . 'Well, come on in,' she said. . . . She was absolutely color-blind when it came to racial matters; these fellows were just two of my friends. That was the way she and Jack had always raised my brother and me."
Burgie was Dad's best friend on the team -- he played center and Dad played guard -- and he recalled the incident as well. Shortly after Dad's inauguration in 1981, liberal columnist Mark Shields interviewed Burgie, who was then a retired college professor. Burgie recounted the story exactly as Dad would later tell it in his book, including the warm welcome from Jack and Nelle Reagan.
As Shields related in a November 2010 column, the incident took place "in an America where, overwhelmingly, blacks and whites did not break bread together or sleep under the same roof. In 1981 -- some eight months before his death -- Burgie still remembered that Reagan had not hesitated to invite Rattan and him into his family home. . . . [Ronald Reagan's] teammate and lifelong friend William Franklin Burghardt could and did eloquently testify: The Gipper was free of racial prejudice in his personal life."
My father was educated in a racially color-blind setting at Eureka College. In March 2009, when Mikhail Gorbachev toured the Ronald Reagan Museum at Eureka College, he seemed especially impressed by Dad's 1932 Eureka yearbook which showed a photo of an African-American woman, Willie Sue Smith, on the same page as my father's senior picture. Gorbachev was surprised to see a black woman in an American college yearbook of that time.
I think I know why Gorbachev was surprised. In my travels in Eastern Europe, I talked to many who once lived under communism. They told me that the Communist schools required students to read Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Students were taught that this book accurately portrayed racism in America today. When Gorbachev saw a black woman in Ronald Reagan's graduating class, it contradicted everything he'd been taught about life in America.
Dad's alma mater led the way in promoting racial equality -- yet much of America lagged behind in race relations. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed us toward a new era of racial harmony, in which all Americans would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
In a White House Rose Garden ceremony in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill honoring Dr. King with a federal holiday on the third Monday of January every year. On Dr. King's birthday that year, my father said, "Abraham Lincoln freed the black man. In many ways, Dr. King freed the white man. . . . Where others -- white and black -- preached hatred, he taught the principles of love and nonviolence."
On this anniversary of Dr. King's birthday, less than a month before the hundredth birthday of Ronald Reagan, it's fitting to note that Ronald Reagan did more to improve the lives of African-Americans than any other president since Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that America's first black president has made life worse for us all -- and especially for black Americans.
History does not judge presidents by the color of their skin, but by the content of their policies.
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