June 8, 2004
As the glowing tributes continue to pour in for the late President Ronald Reagan, it is not likely people will read or hear tributes from many African-Americans.
Soon after entering public office, Reagan made clear his views toward blacks. He put into effect a number of policies that had strong negative impacts on the lives and aspirations of many African-Americans.
He delivered his first major campaign speech for the presidency in 1980 in Philadelphia, Miss., the town where Klansmen murdered three civil-rights workers in 1964 during "Freedom Summer." By delivering a speech in a town that was once a hotbed of racial hatred, he upset African-Americans and emboldened old-guard segregationists.
Second, he opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. When he was running for governor of California in 1966, Reagan assailed the Fair Housing Act, saying, "If an individual wants to discriminate against Negroes or others in selling or renting his house, it is his right to do so."
Third, early in his presidential tenure, Reagan granted tax-exempt status to schools that segregate. For 12 years since President Nixon's term, government tax policy had moved in a direction that took a hard line on schools that discriminate. Reagan tried to reverse that trend but his efforts fortunately failed.
Fourth, while Nixon appointed William Rehnquist, an ardent foe of desegregation efforts, to the Supreme Court, Reagan elevated him to chief justice in 1986.
Reagan also staunchly refused to support sanctions against the racist regime in South Africa when he was president. African-Americans strongly supported economic sanctions against the country's government, and eventually Congress overrode Reagan's veto in 1986 to pass sanctions into law that signaled to South Africa that its apartheid days were numbered.
Finally, in October 1983, Reagan disgraced the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The Senate had overwhelmingly passed the King holiday bill by 78-22 that month. Despite popular support for it, Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., leader of the opposition to the bill, tried to get the FBI to open King's files to prove King was a communist sympathizer.
Reagan was asked about Helms' underhanded tactic at a news conference. He didn't disavow it. Instead, Reagan said, "We'll know in about 35 years, won't we?" It was a disgraceful moment that insulted many Americans around the nation.
While Reagan did sign the King holiday into law, Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., said that "we're dragging him into the room kicking and screaming."
Reagan adopted the Republican Party's Southern Strategy of winning over the votes of Southern whites who opposed civil rights. Time magazine writer Jack White wrote in November 2002 that Ronald Reagan "set a standard for exploiting white anger and resentment" over the years. Reagan did not hesitate to perpetuate an ugly myth about single black mothers receiving government assistance with the phrase "welfare queens." Nor did he shy away from using the word "quota" to fight moves toward affirmative action that help people of color and women obtain fairness in education and in the workforce.
Reagan's policies -- not nostalgic sentiments -- should determine the late president's legacy. For African-Americans, those policies were destructive.
Brian Gilmore is a lawyer and poet with two collections of poetry, including "Jungle Nights and Soda Fountain Rags: A Poem for Duke Ellington and the Duke Ellington Orchestra" (Karibu Books, 2000). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.