Murder in the South and how Ronald Reagan killed empathy

A Civil Rights-era murder in Neshoba County, Mississippi and the start of Reagan's presidential campaign 16 years later.  

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It’s been too long, friends. As today’s post shows, maybe this whole lack of context thing I complain about all the time is a lack of an understanding of basic history? Or, if understood, caring about what it means? Anyway…

At Untold Story, I’m looking to work through and diagnose both what ails political media coverage and deliver journalism that clarifies our American political moment going into the presidential election in 2020. It’ll be a process. I’m Jeremy Borden, independent journalist, reluctant political junkie, with bylines in publications big and small but with a sense that more of us in the media need to tilt at windmills if the mess that has been made of the American Experiment is going to continue.

Freedom Summer in Mississippi

The FBI found many murdered bodies during those weeks, but not the ones they were looking for… 

In June 1964, three civil rights activists took off for Neshoba County, Mississippi, during the heart of the Mississippi Freedom Summer when the nation’s attention had turned to the Deep South and the burning of a Black church. 

Michael Chaney, James Schwerner and Andrew Goodman never came back.

 Local police officers and others in the KKK -- the two groups overlapped -- had initially arrested the young activists, all in their 20s, on a traffic charge after they had come to Neshoba County to seek justice for the burning of Mount Zion AME Church which had agreed to host a Freedom School. Two of the civil rights activists where white — worth noting because it’s unlikely that the episode would have attained its level of national notoriety had it been Black blood that had been spilled, something unremarked by authorities or, alas, history itself. 

President Lyndon Johnson became consumed with finding the young men and flooded the area with federal officials from the FBI and Defense Department. As authorities turned the county upside down, Johnson signed the seminal Civil Rights Act of 1964, as southern senators like friend-of-Joe-Biden and Mississippi Senator James Eastland continued to call the whole thing a PR “stunt” — aka fake news.  

Incredibly, even in Mississippi, an all-white jury nearly did the right thing in 1966. Edgar Ray Killen and seven co-conspirators were almost convicted at trial — a jury deadlocked 11-1; the lone holdout said that they couldn’t imagine convicting a preacher. Years later, a local famed investigative reporter for the Clarion-Ledger, Jerry Mitchell, worked with a high school teacher in Illinois named Barry Bradford to get the case against Killen reopened. Killen was convicted in 2005 of manslaughter, while many of the others who helped conspire in the murders walked away. 

Neshoba County is and was a touchtone of the civil rights movement, a galvanizing moment in our nation’s history where a nation — or, those who control that thing called “consensus” — said things had to change in the South, the status quo would not hold. To say the least, for the Senator Eastlands of the world, maybe call them the infamous “silent majority,” such episodes were swallowed with a bitter pill, even if social norms dictated that because of that episode and the civil rights struggle meant they couldn’t talk about race the same way they used to. 

In between, as Ben Fountain aptly points out in his book,  “Beautiful Country Burn Again,” which is filled with contemporaneous and historical gems from Trump’s 2016 campaign, Ronald Reagan made a stop in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on the heels of his primary win at the 1980 Republican convention in Detroit, Michigan. 

His first stop, his first choice. A tiny county in Mississippi with a back story as drenched in hatred and violence as any. 

The choice of that particular place to kick off his general election campaign was curious for other reasons, too. His campaign managers were already spelling out a general campaign strategy that would push him to connect with white ethnic minorities in the north, or the “Northern Strategy,” since there was little chance, the thinking went, he could do well in Jimmy Carter’s South. Reagan didn’t stumble into tiny Neshoba County, population 20,000 to kick off his 1980 campaign. He was there to kick the tires on a couple things, and maybe send a message. 

Reagan, as Fountain points out, didn’t bother to mention Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman during his speech at the county fairgrounds, in which he notes that most of the crowd is probably lifelong Democrats. But he would have known Neshoba County’s history. In Fountain’s view, this was one of the first clarion screeches of so-called dog-whistle racial politics, when Reagan slyly drops into his stump speech a mention of state’s rights. As Fountain put it:

[T]hat Reagan didn’t know what he was doing is to consign him to the ranks of the epically stupid. He’d campaigned for Goldwater. He was a two-term governor of California, a veteran of national politics, and had been running for president since 1968. The Neshoba County speech stands as one of the true masterpieces of the Southern Strategy, a dog whistle that blew out the eardrums of every racist reactionary within three thousand miles. That fall, Reagan was elected president in a landslide. 

Except to listen to the speech, through the miracle of You Tube, the “state’s right’s” line is delivered tepidly, cautiously, and it seems to land with a glance — I was surprised not to hear any applause given that historians later dubbed these remarks the “state’s rights” speech, a moment of clarity in a long history of racial politics. The speech is generally a light one, and it’s slipped in there as if to be an afterthought — you know, a casual nod to the favorite argument of slaveholders that they had a legal shell when the moral one had evaporated. 

Of course, this is still a hotly debated question — did Reagan know this state’s rights shit was racist — and is the subject of much hand-wringing on the right. Let us dispense with the pleasantries: of course he did. Ronald Reagan and his well-oiled campaign that at the time didn’t believe it had a chance in hell of winning Jimmy Carter’s southern states and the solid Democratic South knew what had happened in tiny Neshoba County, knew the trial balloon that they were floating that would be refined in the campaign to come. Note, too, that he didn’t bother to mention the civil rights atrocity that had occurred there just 16 years earlier. Later, he also knew what it meant to harp on the imagined “welfare queen” and, less directly, the idea of “limited government” and back to “state’s rights” and the racial implications therein. He knew when he stood at a major campaign speech in front of the Statue of Liberty on Labor Day — instead of, say, the shores of Charleston — who he was talking about. He cleverly winked at JFK during that speech that is about why America’s shores should always be open to certain immigrants:

These families came here to work. They came to build. … They helped to build that magnificent city across the river. They spread across the land building other cities and towns and incredibly productive farms. They came to make America work. They didn’t ask what this country could do for them.

These ideas defined Reagan’s landslide campaign and his governing years in the White House. But there’s a bigger argument inherent in the Reagan Doctrine that remains the prevailing conservative philosophy of Republicans from Trump to the Never Trumpers: the federal government is the enemy. It is an intruder on true America and Americans. The idea of shared sacrifice is the same Bolshevik drivel that greases the slippery slope to Stalin, or fill in your Tucker Carlson analogy here. 

Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy comes to mind here, but actually what Reagan locked in was just as insidious; with a silver tongue and pleasant packaging, Reagan used state’s rights and the rest of his anti-government agenda for it to be OK to despise the government, to despise your neighbor and to reject the very notion that racism existed, all in the same rancid gumbo. Reagan ended every stump speech later in his campaign with the same line: “Let’s Make America Great Again.” 

I gasped when I read Fountain’s brief account of Reagan’s Neshoba County speech. I went deep down a rabbit hole of why George Wallace hadn’t done better in his 1968 campaign (read about his nutbag running mate Curtis LeMay, ol’ “Rusty Knife,” who apparently wanted to nuke anyone he could, and marvel at how Wallace won five states in the Deep South as a third-party candidate). Reagan’s glorified image as a great healer, a core optimist, is so obviously misguided it’s a laughable wonder (though not a surprise) that’s what we were taught in middle school. 

But I think it runs to the core of what I’ve been missing about why helping people get health care or even paying a local librarian a fair wage is so controversial for conservatives — even if they’d benefit from from those things. There’s a core liberal or Democratic principle that if they could convince the amorphous GOPer that this or that will help them, then they could win them over. The problem is that if something helps them, it could help someone else — and then we’re back at the welfare state. If government = enemy, then any proposal that puts forth the common good is by definition un-American. 

It’s an empathy deficit that Reagan helped tap into an enraged working class — and I doubt it will leave our politics in my lifetime. 

It helps explain why when Trump says at a rally that “we used to deal with these people differently” whenever a protester is escorted out (and I guess not killed or beaten up) why the crowd surges around him and laughs. Empathy has become something to despise. It’s why Democrats (any Democrat) has to be considered a vast underdog in the next election (one caveat: without a somewhat significant change in who normally votes), with the rallying cry of fuck ‘em being vastly more appealing and motivating than the finer points of Medicare for All.

Bernie and the Democratic Party poobahs often talk, in different terms, of winning back the working class, what Nixon called the Silent Minority. As academic Seth Blumenthal put it in the Washington Post:

Democrats looking to borrow the phrase to win over this crucial voting bloc have the same misconception … that the silent majority wants civility and sobriety. They overlook the fundamental role that race, resentment and alienation have played in why the silent-majority concept has stuck. While these voters are neither silent nor a majority, they feel as though they have been dictated to by a disproportionately powerful minority — and they want a champion willing to fight back against that minority, something Trump does with relish.

The American voter is a fickle beast, never seemingly entranced with much for too long (except for Trump?) and willing to throw out a politician on a whim over a perception, damn the reality, so who knows what’s going to happen in the next election or the one after. Race and racism may be core to the Trump appeal, but the left often conveniently ignore the cultural and social conservative values that have also contributed to Republicans’ vast majorities in rural areas, let alone their inability to espouse or deliver an economic plan there. 

That said, Reagan didn’t create America’s culture and race divide — but he mastered it for his and his party’s purposes. When Trump stole his tagline and did away with Reagan’s folksy charm on the subject, he unleashed a chasm of resentment brewing since civil rights crusaders changed the South and the country forever. After Michael Chaney, James Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered it was no longer polite to believe or say certain things in public, or at least needed a different packaging. It is now … again.