At the time of their deaths, I was one of those callow white Southerners who wondered what the fuss was all about. Most agents of the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, were also openly indifferent to the plight of civil rights workers in the South. One wonders if he, too, did not feel they got what they were "asking for." The movie, "Mississippi Burning," purports to credit FBI agents for diligent investigation and prosecution of early civil rights offenses, but it is a lie. Like me, at the time, the FBI didn't give a damn.
A lot of Southern politicians have rankled under the South-focused enforcements of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act and have railed against them over the years. Even recently, the Mississippi senators, Thad Cochran and former Majority Leader Trent Lott, refused to support the anti-lynching resolution that passed the U.S. Senate. (Hang 'em high still.) However, those relatively modest legal changes were really good for the South and all of us inhabitants. We white folks in the South owe a lot of our current freedoms to the memories of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, and many others who died for our civil liberties.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, I was reminded of something that I had forgotten: the underlying reason for my strong dislike of Ronald Reagan, which I have felt all these years since he started his first campaign for president in the summer of 1980. I have found myself in a persistent lonely position. My first pleasant memories of Ronald Reagan were from his hosting of the "GE Theater" and "Death Valley Days" on TV. I could easily have become a Reagan supporter like so many others drawn to his cheery, avuncular personality. After the dour, unfortunate presidency of Jimmy Carter, many voters were ready to kick him out of the White House and install the ever-optimistic Reagan. The fact that he is now dead further protects his popular legacy.
Some Republicans have been very adept at exploiting the underlying residual fears and resentments of many white Southerners regarding the true emancipation of blacks. The repugnant inaction of Sens. Cochran and Lott are but one example. Democrats have piously resisted, for the most part, such exploitation, but many blacks feel "tokenized" within the Democratic Party to this day. Ronald Reagan was one of those politicians who did not worry themselves about residual memories and images. He soundly defeated Southerner Jimmy Carter in the South in 1980.
The thing that sealed my hostility toward Reagan was his early trip to Philadelphia, Miss., in the summer of 1980 to basically raise hell about the popular legal fiction of "states' rights," a red-meat issue for white Southerners. Reagan (and his handlers) had to know what the specific history of Philadelphia was, and I believe that is specifically why they went there, to assure white voters with a wink and a nod (Reagan's famous signals) that they "understood." What business would a former California governor otherwise have in a backwater like Philadelphia, Miss., except to say, "I'm one of you"?
I was reminded of all this 24 years later. I remembered that a U.S. presidential candidate was openly sly and indifferent to the murderous horror of what he was seemingly endorsing. Mean, unambiguous messages were being sent, but the animosity toward Jimmy Carter was so intense, no one I knew cared. But I never forgot how I felt about Reagan, to the point of nausea.
Edgar Ray Killen will enter the penitentiary, probably never to come out. We should remember that Ronald Reagan proved in the summer of 1980 that "politics ain't bean-bag," as his nemesis Tip O'Neill supposedly said. Ronald Reagan proved that winning is everything, and that being president means never having to say you're sorry. S
H. Watkins Ellerson is a lawyer in Hadensville.
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