Being Right About Reagan’s Racism Was Bad for Jimmy Carter

The lessons of the Neshoba County Fair.

Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Ronald Reagan after debating.
President Jimmy Carter shakes hands with Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan after debating in Cleveland on Oct. 28, 1980. Madeline Drexler/AP

It was a mistake, tactically, to call Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign racist. Reagan’s opponent, Jimmy Carter, made that error in a September address at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. had served as the co-pastor. “You’ve seen in this campaign the stirrings of hate and the rebirth of code words like states’ rights in a speech in Mississippi,” Carter said, adding that “hatred has no place in this country.”

The Democratic president was referencing a speech Reagan had made to a nearly all-white crowd of 15,000 at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair. “I believe in states’ rights,” Reagan had said on Aug. 3, 1980, explaining that he intended to “restore to the states and local communities those functions that properly belong there.” Reagan’s appearance at the fair was part of a strategy, articulated by a Republican official in a 1979 letter, to send the eventual nominee to venues that might draw “George Wallace–inclined voters,” who had begun supporting Republicans as segregationist politicians left the Democratic Party. The Neshoba County Fair, the New York Times reported in 1980, was known for playing host to candidates who delivered “bitter racist diatribes.” It was also located just a few miles away from where civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in 1964. “Both before and after the killing of those three men,” I wrote in my book, The Queen, “political authorities in the state had invoked states’ rights as a kind of threat—a warning that integrationists and the federal government give the state leave to handle its own affairs.” A decade and a half later, it sounded like Reagan was whistling a similar tune.

Carter’s statement about code words and hatred reoriented the conversation about Reagan and the Neshoba County Fair, but not in the way Carter intended. Instead of focusing on Reagan’s speech, its effect on black Americans, and what it implied about how he’d govern, the political press concentrated on Carter’s decision to chide Reagan and the tone he’d used in doing so. “Do you think that Reagan is running a campaign of hatred and racism, and how do you answer allegations that you are running a mean campaign?” a reporter asked Carter at a White House press conference. The president’s response: “No. I do not think he’s running a campaign of racism or hatred, and I think my campaign is very moderate in its tone. … I do not think that my opponent is a racist in any degree.” Reagan, for his part, said that Carter’s words at Ebenezer Baptist Church were “shameful,” because “we ought to be trying to pull the country together.”

While Carter was chastened, Reagan did nothing to modify his behavior. Just before Election Day, the Republican candidate appeared at a rally with former Mississippi Gov. John Bell Williams, an avowed segregationist. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, meanwhile, told a crowd of Reagan supporters, “We want that federal government to keep their filthy hands off the rights of the states.” Reagan would be rewarded for the company he kept. He’d beat Carter by 10 points, winning every Southern state except West Virginia and Georgia.

I thought of the Neshoba County Fair and its aftermath this week when the Atlantic published a previously unknown snippet of a conversation between Reagan and President Richard Nixon. On the morning of Oct. 26, 1971, Reagan, who was then the governor of California, told Nixon that African nations were to blame for the United Nations’ vote to eject Taiwan and welcome in mainland China. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said in audio captured by Nixon’s White House taping system, “to see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon cackled in response. A few minutes later, the president called Secretary of State William Rogers to report, in the words of the Atlantic’s Timothy Naftali, “that Reagan spoke for racist Americans, and they needed to be listened to.”

On that tape, Reagan’s racism is direct and undeniable. Nixon, whose own racism is extraordinarily well-documented, immediately rejoices in it, laughing as Reagan talks about African “monkeys.” In his call with Rogers, by contrast, Nixon distances himself from the racist commentary, attributing it to someone more prejudiced than he is. (He also tells Rogers, erroneously, that Reagan had called the African leaders “cannibals.”) At the same time, Nixon categorizes Reagan’s views as a valuable political data point, a sentiment that needs to be understood and nurtured, not rejected.

As Naftali writes, “These new tapes are a stark reminder of the racism that often lay behind the public rhetoric of American presidents.” In Reagan’s “states’ rights” speech and in his fixation on Linda Taylor—a “woman in Chicago” who stole loads of welfare money—such racism wasn’t very far below the surface. As a practical matter, though, it was important that these were coded appeals and not overt ones—that Reagan didn’t specify which states’ rights he was referring to and didn’t mention Taylor’s race or call her the “welfare queen” in his stump speech. (He did say “welfare queen” at least twice when he wasn’t on the campaign trail.) That lack of clarity enabled Reagan to take umbrage when Carter talked about “the stirrings of hate,” and to claim that calling out racism was more hurtful and divisive than playing footsie with racists.

Reagan’s defenders have upheld his honor by protecting his innocence, attributing his comments to naïveté. In 2007, David Brooks wrote that it was a “slur” to suggest that Reagan’s language at the Neshoba County Fair was racist, pointing out that Reagan spoke to the National Urban League just days later and that Michael Dukakis campaigned at the fair in 1988. Brooks didn’t mention that, two years before he wrote his column, his New York Times colleague Bob Herbert had revealed the existence of a 1981 interview in which Reagan official Lee Atwater said, among other loathsome things, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.”

Regardless of how you view Reagan’s motives, the words he used in his private phone call with Nixon in 1971 are very different from the ones he deployed in his public performance in Mississippi in 1980. Both exchanges, however, are marked by deflection and political cynicism. Just as Nixon saw Reagan and his followers as the real racists, the Reagan campaign saw acolytes of George Wallace (who was famous for advocating, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever”) as unreconstructed bigots. While Reagan’s campaign staff didn’t want their candidate to be perceived as Wallace-like, they did want those voters in their coalition. They believed, in essence, that Wallace spoke for racist Americans, and they needed to be listened to.

“George Wallace–inclined voters” were just one part of the electorate in 1980, to be courted like any other interest group. Another group of Americans heard something very different when Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair. The New York Times’ John Herbers explained that “use of the phrase ‘states’ rights’ at such a forum meant only one thing to Southern blacks.” A week after Reagan’s remarks in Mississippi, civil rights leader Andrew Young wrote a piece for the Washington Post in which he noted that “James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Philadelphia’s Neshoba County for trying to register black voters.” Young, who served as a surrogate for President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 campaign, took no comfort in Reagan’s lack of specificity. He said that he was “obsessed with a chilling question: what ‘states’ rights’ would candidate Reagan revive? … Is Reagan saying that he intends to do everything he can to turn the clock back to the Mississippi justice of 1964?”

A few weeks before Election Day, Young would go much further, telling a crowd in Ohio that the term states’ rights sounded “like a code word to me that it’s going to be all right to kill niggers when [Reagan is] president.” The White House distanced itself from Young’s statement, reiterating that “the president made clear that he does not believe that Gov. Reagan is a racist or is running a campaign of racism. He has also stated that he regrets the injection of the racial issue into the present campaign and would like to see it eliminated.” A Reagan official responded by saying that Young’s speech revealed Carter’s “cynical approach to politics.” The Reagan campaign did not disavow the support of John Bell Williams or Strom Thurmond.

In his infamous 1981 interview, Lee Atwater argued that the use of coded language in political speech was a sign of progress; he referred to it as “doing away with the racial problem.” The National Archives too seems to have subscribed to the notion that racism doesn’t count if you can’t hear it. Naftali reports that when the government agency “originally released the tape of [the Nixon-Reagan] conversation, in 2000, the racist portion was apparently withheld to protect Reagan’s privacy.”

Now that we’ve been allowed to hear what Reagan said behind closed doors, it’s clear that he had a racist bone in his body. This old piece of tape also suggests that the man who benefited from and helped cement a racialized political alignment probably didn’t stumble into that arrangement by accident. The movement handed down from Nixon to Reagan now belongs to someone who says in public the things Reagan only said in private. Even Atwater would recognize that Donald Trump hasn’t done away with the racial problem. Rather, he’s exposed one that never went away.