Friday, 20 December 2002

Ronald Reagan and the Neshoba County Fair

Over the past few weeks, a lot of people have been making a big deal out of Ronald Reagan's appearance in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1980; they suggest that somehow choosing Philadelphia, in and of itself, illustrates Reagan trolling for racist votes; Radley Balko, for example, discusses this argument.

Philadelphia does have its own ugly racial history; it was the site of the killings of three northern civil rights workers in 1964, famously dramatized in the film Mississippi Burning.

But there is another explanation for Reagan's appearance. Philadelphia, Mississippi is also the site of the Neshoba County Fair, established in 1889. According to their history page, the tradition of political candidates speaking at the fair dates back to 1896. And, lo and behold, Ronald Reagan spoke at the fair in 1980 to kick off his post-convention campaign. An appearance at the fair, in and of itself, does not suggest a racial motive; former Massachussetts Governor Mike Dukakis spoke at the fair during his 1988 presidential campaign, for example, and most candidates for major statewide or regional office from both parties participate in the fair.

Of course, what you do at the fair also makes a difference. And in 1980, there can be no question that a “states' rights” strategy was in play, with South Carolina's Strom Thurmond on hand as well as then-representative Trent Lott. To a roaring crowd, Reagan emphatically declared his support for states' rights, and in front of that same crowd Trent Lott first publicly said that Strom Thurmond ought to have been elected president in 1948.

On balance, the question has to be: what did Reagan say, not where did he say it. Ultimately his words, and not his location, should indict him.