I was about to start my second year at Mississippi State when Ronald Reagan came to the Neshoba County Fair in 1980. My gut instincts told me one thing. "The Republicans are playing Mississippians for fools," I told my oldest brother then. He was a Reagan supporter, but he later tended to agree with me about the Gipper. My naïve hunch played out. No matter how many syrupy, lemonade-soaked reminiscences of that visit we read about now from one Fair cabin owner or another (the "elite" of Neshoba County), the net result of that visit hasn't been pretty.
Reagan came to the Fair during a pivotal point for Mississippians -- and he came there for wily and, ultimately, tragic political reasons. The new Republican Party -- not the same one that clumsily tried to force equal voting and legal rights for blacks during Reconstruction -- needed to build a base. One way to do that was to pander to white Southerners' worst instincts (after, mind you, assuming that those were our instincts, our values). Talk about bigotry of low expectations.
Armed with advice from political strategists like Southerners Lee Atwater and young Haley Barbour -- a new Republican since his Ole Miss days -- Reagan came to the Fair to harness lingering racial anger from segregationist Democrats upset that their national party had ended up leading the way on civil rights. Unfortunately, this isn't a half-baked conspiracy theory; it's well known in political-science circles as the vaunted "Southern strategy."
Sadly, the deal with the devil of racism is vaunted because it worked and set up a chain of events that sent the new Republican Party spiraling in a dark direction from which it doesn't know how to recover.
The parties' switch in ideology had started when President Johnson signed civil rights legislation, sending Southern Dems scurrying for racist shelter in Barry Goldwater's new GOP. President Nixon had also used the strategy, but it did not reach full fruition until Reagan's visit to the Fair, and subsequent GOP campaigns against mythical "welfare queens" and "Willie Hortons" and "super predators" and pandering visits to Bob Jones University -- all coded ploys without regard to actual facts. (And often using almost the exact language as during Jim Crow, especially when spreading crime propaganda against blacks.)
I deplore what I believe Reagan helped do to my home state: In order to get votes for an ambitious, greedy Republican Party, he assumed that the majority of white Mississippians, and Southerners, are racist and would respond to such rhetoric.
This is doubly ironic, of course, being that the vast majority of Southerners and Mississippians are not benefited by trickle-down Reaganomics. I still have a yellowing clipping in my files from 1980 of Reagan with his hand on the shoulder of a little black boy pointing up to the sky and telling him he just had to pull himself up by his bootstraps. In the next frame, you see that the little boy is barefoot.
Too many Mississippians have been barefoot (and still are), proverbially speaking, for top-down new Republicanism to help them much. (As a friend likes to say, you're a damned fool if you're a Republican and you make under $100,000 a year.)
Do I believe Reagan was a racist in his heart? Or Barbour? Or Bush I or II? (All men who have played the Southern strategy to the hilt.) Probably not. I suspect they did it for votes. But in the game of politics, it matters not what's in your heart; it's what you do with your position and your power that builds your legacy. And it's hard to trust sell-outs. What those men, and others, have done is heartbreaking, not only for them but for the Republican Party, and the South, and the US as a whole. They've divided the nation into that red and blue we hear about all the time -- even though most Americans have moderate views. Good Republicans are hurt as much as anyone as their party moves closer and closer to the radical right and away from the compassionate middle.
Closer to home, the Southern strategy has stunted our growth as a state. After the difficulties of desegregation, by 1980, many whites were beginning to see their way past their parents' prejudices. Once we were working and going to school alongside blacks, and without the racist crime demagoguery of the past, poor whites were bound to figure out that they were in similar economic boats to blacks. They were moving toward the light.
That light wasn't going to help fat-cat politicos and big-industry donors, though. So the new GOP charged in, taking advantage of the reservoirs of white resentment over the loss of "state's rights" (that is, control of blacks). Yes, the New South was beginning to come on, with blacks gaining in the middle class and with opportunities. But they still needed legs-up from the state, and legal protection from the feds, if they were to gain true equality. And true equality scared the holy hell out of a lot of white Mississippians who seemed to think there's a finite pool of equality to go around: If someone else gets some, you lose yours.
So why the Fair? What better place from which to send a message to Southern white voters with lingering resentments about the "race question" than the county that became known -- fairly or not -- in the 1960s as the most hateful place in the country? The town where three brutal murders, and the town's closing of the ranks around the conspirators, would help convince Congress to pass real civil rights legislation? The old-time political gathering spot where rebel flags still flew (and fly) proudly and where older white men stood at attention when the high school band, including black students, played "Dixie"?
Reagan's "state's rights" message that day resonated throughout the white South and, indeed, started a slide that has most recently culminated in the coded election of Haley Barbour and a rollback of services to the state's poor of all races.
But don't dare try to call the Southern strategy "racist" in mixed company; its proponents will brand you a "liberal" or a member of the "liberal media" -- a response right out of the new GOP playbook. Lord knows, only a damned liberal would question such a brilliant strategy to appeal to Southerners' dark side -- no matter how much harm it does us all.
Ultimately, the strategy works not because most people are racist, but because most people -- regardless of political leaning -- aren't engaged and, thus, let the extremists (and their panderers) set the agenda. Thus, too many people are just tuning out of the system, not voting, not caring -- leaving the Southern strategists to play us Southerners for damn fools.
We can no longer afford to be the testing ground for so-called "compassionate conservative" theories that do not work, and only widen the gap between the rich and the poor -- and that rely on race-baiting for political success. We must come together regardless of race, retire the shameful Southern strategy and start pulling our state on up by its own bootstraps.
Donna Ladd is editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Miss., and a native of Neshoba County. See www.jacksonfreepress.com.