Ronald Reagan (b. 6 February 1911; d. 5 June 2004), the former California governor who saw himself as protecting the “American way” against hippies and black radicals like the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis, opened his campaign to become U.S. president in August 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was near a swampy area where in 1964 the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers had been found. The deaths of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, who were killed in 1964 during the Mississippi Freedom Summer—a massive campaign to push for the right to...
Ronald Reagan (b. 6 February 1911; d. 5 June 2004), the former California governor who saw himself as protecting the “American way” against hippies and black radicals like the Black Panther Party and Angela Davis, opened his campaign to become U.S. president in August 1980 in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was near a swampy area where in 1964 the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers had been found. The deaths of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, who were killed in 1964 during the Mississippi Freedom Summer—a massive campaign to push for the right to vote for all Americans—had shocked the nation. As a result of those deaths and others, Congress and President Lyndon B. Johnson had stepped up the fight that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Reagan chose the area purposely as a symbol of white racism and “states’ rights”—the latter the government philosophy that southerners embraced in defense of Jim Crow laws during the civil rights movement. Reagan's intent was to galvanize the southern white vote that he would need for the election, and the tactic worked.The Reagan administration cheerfully slammed the door on 1970s liberal optimism. Reagan's coalition of working-class northern whites and southern whites was the perfect fulfillment of Richard Nixon's so-called southern strategy—to get southern whites to become Republicans and then use them as the base to win presidential elections—to keep Republicans in the White House. Reagan's winning personality allowed him to avoid being seen as a racist demagogue. The administration, however, had a clear political and social agenda: actively to reverse the gains of African Americans in national public policy under the presidents Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter.The new Republican administration showed, at best, indifference to black concerns. The administration restored tax-exempt status to nonprofit institutions and schools that had racially discriminating policies. It decreased federal support for affirmative action, calling the policy “quotas” and reverse racism. Reagan removed Arthur S. Flemming, the head of the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights, and replaced him with Clarence Pendleton, a black conservative. He added more black conservatives to the commission, with a specific emphasis on finding people who held conservative positions on busing and affirmative action. Reagan replaced Drew Days, Carter's appointee at the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, with William Bradford Reynolds, another conservative. The administration was also slow in renewing the Voting Rights Act in 1982. The idea that enforcement of civil rights should be left to the states was a return to the idea of states’ rights.In 1983 Reagan reluctantly signed a bill making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday. Blacks and others had protested since 1981, and had lobbied well before that, for such a holiday. The administration originally defended comments from the conservative senator Jesse Helms about King's alleged Communist connections, and that defense caused controversy.Ronald Reagan and Martin Luther King Day. President Ronald Reagan signs legislation establishing Martin Luther King's birthday as a national holiday, 1983. Coretta Scott King is at the left. White House Photographic Collection, Ronald Reagan Library, National ArchivesThe administration cut social programs that provided job training for the working poor, a demographic that included many blacks. Other programs slashed included Medicaid, student loans, child nutrition assistance, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and unemployment compensation. It also diminished the ability of the Legal Enforcement Assistance Administration, an agency intended to help the poor in asserting their rights as tenants. Reagan's tax cuts did not provide relief to the poorest Americans, many of them African American. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society had peaked.The Reagan administration's work against union organizing marked yet another dramatic political shift. The administration's 1981 mass firing of striking air-traffic controllers—members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization—showed that unions’ power to negotiate for working people would be directly challenged.In the international arena the Reagan administration did not support sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. But in 1986 massive public support, spurred by black protests, led Congress to override Reagan's veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.The administration put the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, labor officials, and other liberals on the permanent defensive. These and other organizations worked throughout the decade to preserve civil rights gains, fight for economic sanctions against South Africa, and preserve the coalition among blacks, labor, and the women's movement. The fight was picked up by the Reverend Jesse Jackson during his two presidential runs in 1984 and 1988.
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