Remembering President's Reagan Civil Rights Legacy

This Sunday marks the 100th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan's birth. The anniversary offers historians and politicians an opportunity to re-examine the 40th president's legacy, including more controversial aspects, such as his record on civil rights. Linda Chavez, former staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under Reagan and Professor Michael Fauntroy, author of the book Republicans and the Black Vote examine the impact of Reagan's legacy on communities of color.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to another important moment in our civic life. On February 6, 1911, 100 years ago, Sunday, Ronald Wilson Reagan was born. After a career as a radio announcer, actor, union rep and pitch man, he became the governor of California and, of course, the 40th president of the United States.

Over the past few days, many people have been looking back at the life and legacy of this pivotal 20th century leader. We are too, but with a particular eye towards his legacy regarding people of color. We started thinking about this, in part, because President Reagan's son, Michael, recently said that his father was actually the nation's first black president because, he says, his father did so much to improve the well-being of African Americans.

Now, that got notice because as beloved as President Reagan is and was, by many conservatives, many others, particularly blacks, viewed his tenure with skepticism and even alarm, which he knew. He defended his record at this session with students near the end of his presidency.

President RONALD REAGAN: I can assure you that with regard to any hint of discrimination that we have done more than any other generation or administration, I should say, to punish those who attempt to discriminate and to make sure that the opportunities are equal for all.

MARTIN: That from a meeting with middle school students at the White House which was held on November 14, 1988. We've invited two distinguished guests to talk about the Reagan legacy. Linda Chavez served as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan. She was also director of public liaison, making her the top-ranked woman in the White House at that time. She's now chair of the think tank, the Center for Equal Opportunity, and a syndicated columnist.

Also joining us, Michael Fauntroy, the author of the book "Republicans and the Black Vote," among others. He's a professor of public policy at George Mason University. They're both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Professor MICHAEL FAUNTROY (Public Policy, George Mason University): Thanks for having me.

Ms. LINDA CHAVEZ (Chair, Center for Equal Opportunity): Great to be with you.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things about President Reagan is he's a much loved figure by some and a very much disliked figure by others. And I know that that was painful to him. But there are two really different images of Ronald Reagan. And both are invoked, I think, equally.

One, from his memoir and which is well attested to by others how when he was growing up, for example, he was on the Eureka College football team. And Reagan biographer Lou Cannon recalls, an Elmhurst, Illinois hotel refused lodging to two of his black teammates. And so the future president said, well, why don't they just come to my house? And apparently didn't think twice about it. So there's that image of Ronald Reagan.

And then there's also the famous statement in announcing his presidency in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where he talked about the issue of states rights.

So, Michael Fauntroy, will you pick up the story on the states rights question and talk about why that was such an important moment in the image of Ronald Reagan for many African Americans?

Mr. FAUNTROY: Well, states rights is code language at some level in the eyes of many African Americans, in part because the phrase, states rights, goes back to the Civil War. It speaks to the ability of states to determine their own will with regard to a number of issues. But as it relates to African Americans, how we're going to deal with slavery.

MARTIN: He also made the statement at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, which was the country where the three civil rights workers, you know, disappeared, you know, years before. I'll just play a short clip of what the future president said and then you can tell us more about why people reacted as they did. Here it is.

Pres. REAGAN: I believe in states' rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.

Mr. FAUNTROY: Well, I get the constitutional argument that he's making. But there's also important symbolism there that I think inflamed a number of African Americans then and that understood that when Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman disappeared from the face of the earth in Philadelphia and Mississippi. And that you go there to launch your presidential campaign, now I think that that symbolism had a powerful impact in black communities across the country that resonates to this day.

MARTIN: Linda Chavez, talk about that, if you would. You knew Ronald Reagan, you know, personally. He never made mention of these three men who were killed in 1964. And yet he left that event and flew to Manhattan to address the Urban League the next day. So, can you talk about that?

Ms. CHAVEZ: I have to tell you, I do think it was a mistake. President Reagan was not originally a supporter of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as many conservatives were not at the time. But unlike some conservatives who have never gotten over that, President Reagan, I think, came to realize how important that Civil Rights Act was and understood that he'd been on the wrong side. He was very much interested in redefining the federal government's role. And I think that's what he meant.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're reflecting on the legacy of the 40th president, Ronald Reagan. His 100th birthday would be this Sunday if he were still with us. I'm speaking with Linda Chavez who served the Reagan administration as staff director to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and as director of the office of public liaison.

We're also speaking with Michael Fauntroy of George Mason University. He's the author of a book on "Republicans and the Black Vote." Michael Fauntroy, you wanted to say something.

Prof. FAUNTROY: I wanted to add one more point with regard to the symbolism. Symbolism is really a big part of the thread that we used throughout the Reagan administration as it relates to African-Americans. We talked earlier about the 1980 campaign launch in Philadelphia and Mississippi. Well, the Ku Klux Klan endorsed him shortly after that.

Now, they were pressed into removing their endorsement, but candidate Reagan was not quick to repudiate the endorsement. And so, you know, the symbolism matters and I think that speaks to the dichotomy that many people have with regard to President Reagan. Conservatives see him one way and African-Americans and others see him very different.

MARTIN: Well, you know, he also did make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday. And I can play a little bit of the speech that he gave that day. I'll just play a short clip. Here it is.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Pres. REAGAN: Traces of bigotry still mar America. So, each year on Martin Luther King Day, let us not only recall Dr. King, but rededicate ourselves to the commandments he believed in and sought to live every day. Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart. And thy shall love thy neighbor as thyself. And I just have to believe that all of us, if all of us, young and old, Republicans and Democrats, do all we can to live up to those commandments, then we will see the day when Dr. King's dream comes true.

MARTIN: I have to ask Linda about this, I've talked to a number of African-American columnists, for example, with whom President Reagan had a very vigorous dialogue. I mean he would literally call them up and particularly when they criticized him. And several of them have reported to me that he always seemed very puzzled. I'm just wondering why it is that he never understood why they were so upset with him.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, I think when he was pushing many of his policies, he believed out there that there should be a whole group of people who would come to those policies and come to agree with him on those issues and see things his way. He was very much somebody who wanted always to persuade you. And so if a policy of his was somehow seen as anti-black, he would find that, I think, very repugnant. And I think that's, you know, why he would reach out in that way.

MARTIN: What about Latinos?

Ms. CHAVEZ: Well, you know, it's very interesting. Because President Reagan had spent so much of his life in California, he had a real affinity for the Mexican-American, in particular, community. It was a very important part of the state that he had governed. You know, he is remembered by some on the right now with some dismay because he was the man who signed the biggest amnesty for illegal aliens.

MARTIN: And it really was amnesty.

Ms. CHAVEZ: It was really amnesty.

MARTIN: It was not, you know, there are no euphemism about it. It wasn't citizenship, it was, in fact, amnesty.

Ms. CHAVEZ: It was a real amnesty.

MARTIN: Michael Fauntroy.

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, I would just say quickly, going back to something that was said earlier with regard to the MLK holiday, it should be noted that he opposed that initially and sort of had to come around, particularly after it was clear that there were veto-proof majorities coming out of both the House and the Senate. And to his credit, he sort of made lemonade out of lemons with the large rose garden ceremony and the eloquent speech and all of that.

I would also add that it appears to me there's the personal Reagan and then there's a policy Reagan. And it's the policy Reagan that I think was anathema to a number of people. So while he may talk about trying to create policies that end dependency, you know, you can say that on one hand, but on the other hand, you're demonizing people that you profess to help.

MARTIN: Linda, I'm going to ask you first, when you think in totality about the Ronald Reagan legacy, how would you like him as both a person and as a national leader to be thought of?

Ms. CHAVEZ: I think he's somebody who really did give America confidence in itself again. I think we were at a very, very low point in our national psyche in 1980 when he was elected. The economy was in the dumps. We had high unemployment, high interest rates. The Soviet Union seemed ascendant and I think that President Reagan taught us to have confidence in ourselves again. And I think that's one of the most important things he did.

MARTIN: Michael Fauntroy, how would you recall this legacy? How would you wish people to think of it?

Prof. FAUNTROY: Well, you know, my view, of course, is a bit different. You know, I think about the rise in homelessness, the hundreds of billions in dollars in money taken out of programs that met the needs of the poor, the old, the young, the sick. And I also think about this sort of dismantling of federal civil rights enforcement, the billions of dollars that were cut from the various mechanisms in the federal government.

So my view is a bit less charitable, but there's no question that he's somebody who stands tall in American history.

MARTIN: Michael Fauntroy is author of the book "Republicans and the Black Vote," among others. He's a professor of public policy at George Mason University. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio, along with Linda Chavez. She's the chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a syndicated columnist. She formerly served as staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights under President Reagan, and, also, the director of the Office of Public Liaison. Thank you both so much for joining us.

Prof. FAUNTROY: Oh, it's my pleasure.

Ms. CHAVEZ: Thank you.

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