By contrast, Reagan’s “states’ rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair did more to shape the American political landscape than any address since Patrick Henry cried out at St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, “Give me Liberty or give me Death!”
Reagan was primed to take the South in his 1980 bid for the White House. The first Presidential candidate to speak at the Fair, Reagan came to Neshoba courting the pro-segregation, law-and-order vote that helped George Wallace win Mississippi in 1968.
The “George Wallace inclined voters” were exactly what Reagan would get at the Neshoba Country Fair, according to a letter written to the Republican national committee by Mike Retzer, who was then Chair of the Mississippi Republican committee. The national committee needed speaking venues for Reagan. Reaching Wallace voters was a plus.
An able demagogue, Wallace connected to the American people, particularly Southerners, “living their own lives, buying their own homes, educating their children, … and not having the bureaucrats and intellectual morons trying to manage everything for them,” as Wallace would say.
As it turned out no one was better at out-Wallacing Wallace than Ronald Reagan.
Less than 20 years earlier three civil rights workers were murdered by the KKK in Neshoba County. Reagan made no mention of their sacrifice or even the civil rights movement. Instead, Reagan focused on the disdain for federal laws implemented during that time. He advocated “states’ rights.”
With coded racist language, Reagan attacked New Deal government Mississippians once embraced. Reagan had already spoken of “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks’ buying T-bone steaks with food stamps.” Stereotypes that resonated and flourished in states like ours. Neshoba loved him as did most of the nation. They cheered when Reagan proudly proclaimed that day, “I believe in state’s rights.”
Reagan’s campaign director, Lee Atwater, described Reagan’s strategy at Neshoba this way. “You can’t say ‘n***er’ — that hurts you.” Atwater said in an interview with Alexander Lamis in 1981, “So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
The Civil Rights Act passed the same year as the Neshoba County murders, ordering an end to racial segregation and creating a distrust of federal government and the Democratic Party. For Mississippi Democrats who felt the party had turned on them during the civil rights movement, Reagan’s comments were an encouragement. As a result, Republicans wrestled Mississippi away from Democratic control.
They have Reagan to thank for their now complete control of our state government. They should be equally grateful for our George Wallace-inclined electorate. They’re still here and they still vote.
It is now impossible to separate racist attitudes from our discourse over the role and purpose of government. In his book, Whistling Past Dixie, Thomas Schaller wrote, “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters…the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”
Wetting the GOP elephant whistle with the same ole spit for 35 years, those attitudes were on display at this week’s Neshoba County fair. GOP speeches were predictable. Underdog Democrats with no chance to win state-wide office showed little fight. Vicki Slater did a nice job of breaking down Governor Bryant’s shortcomings. However, those shortcomings, on the surface anyway, only impact minorities, women and the poor. Such inaction on issues like education and healthcare are just what Wallace-inclined voters and Reagan fans demand from government.
Also on display was our state flag. Fireworks over the flag were anticipated on the last day of this year’s fair. Speaker of the House Phillip Gunn was scheduled to address the crowd. The first state-wide elected office holder to call for changing our state flag, several groups were passing out state flags to wave in front of Gunn, along with signs that read “Keep the Flag: Change the Speaker.”
A number of the coveted cabins at Neshoba hang not just the state flag, but the Confederate battle flag as well. The Speaker would be walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Jefferson Davis.
As you travel the state and talk to its more passionate citizens, you have to wonder if there is a better flag that could possibly represent us. As hurtful as it is to blacks in Mississippi, and folks throughout the nation, the Confederate battle flag emblem should probably remain on our state flag somewhere to remind us that our racist past is also our racist present.
Most folks waving the flag in front of Speaker Gunn were motivated by more exuberant feelings for Mississippi history and a pride in their ancestry… in spite of the fact that most of those ancestors were likely conscripted in service to the Confederacy. Others were waving it as a symbol of their right to challenge federal authority. Reagan would have been proud. Some, you can bet, unfurled the flag that day just to be jerks.
Nevertheless, the expected fireworks turned out to be dumb-dumbs, thanks to a very cautious Speaker Gunn. First, he teased the flag wavers, calling them the “Phillip Gunn fan club.” That went over about as well as a smut joke at a tent revival.
Gunn, who can be a strong orator, made a curious attempt to stress that his opinion on removing the flag was only that: an opinion. He said, “It is true that I voiced my opinion about the flag two weeks ago, and made my opinions about the flag known. They are my opinions and my opinions alone. They don’t stand for anybody else.”
Opinions are like state legislators. Everybody’s got one. Gunn knows we know it. The crowd seemed encouraged. Some laughed when Gunn reminded them, “the fact is we can’t do anything about the flag today. The Legislature is not in session. There is no bill before us. It’s not on the ballot next Tuesday. It’s not on the ballot next November.”
They were laughing, these sons of the Confederacy and Wallace and Reagan, because they know they have already won. Gunn is well aware of the obstacles faced in changing not just our flag but the very symbol of “states’ rights.” They are legion.
Gunn’s priority is maintaining GOP control of the state legislature. It is doubtful he is going to spend too much energy changing the flag. The race-baiting Reagan legacy is alive and living well in Mississippi.
» David Dallas is a political writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.
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