AFAM 162: African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

Lecture 22

 - Public Policy and Presidential Politics

Overview

In this lecture, Professor Holloway gives a political biography of Jesse Jackson as a way to help understand the shifting cultural politics of the 1960s, the rise of a different array of politics in the 1970s, and the high politics of the 1980s. Professor Holloway traces Jackson’s ascension into Martin Luther King’s inner-circle, his work in Chicago with Operation Breadbasket and then later with Operation PUSH, his reaction to King’s assassination, his national economic boycotts, and his 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns. In the second half of the lecture, Professor Holloway turns to the national stage, surveying the political and social milieu around President Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan’s administrations, focusing specifically on the latter two. While Jimmy Carter diversified the executive branch of the federal government through White House appointments, Ronald Reagan had a more covert approach to racial politics. By claiming that the federal government was the real problem, and calling for a return to states’ rights, Reagan implicitly supported the centralizing power of racists like Bull Connor and organizations like the KKK. Thus, Professor Holloway explains, as public race baiting fell out of favor, conservatives like Reagan adopted a way of talking about race without ever mentioning it.

 
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African American History: From Emancipation to the Present

AFAM 162 - Lecture 22 - Public Policy and Presidential Politics

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Political Biography of Jesse Jackson [00:00:00]

Professor Jonathan Holloway: Good morning, everybody. Last week we covered the cultural politics of the early 1970s and also the rise of different types of politics in the, in the, sort of the, this–think of a word that actually–in a bowl, a cauldron of politics in the early 1970s, whether it’s grassroots affairs, high politics with the Congressional Black Caucus, and running throughout all of, all of that, the complications imposed by, by a commitment to formal modes of political engagement, while you have someone like Shirley Chisholm coming along. So you see the way in which gender is this fault line when it comes to race politics in the nation in the early 1970s. And it’s been a fault line for the longest time, of course. What I want to do today is cover chronologically a lot of the same time period, but through, through a biography.

One person I’ve not really mentioned much at all in the course in the last few weeks, but who’s becoming incredibly important as we go through the 1970s and into the 1980s, is Jesse Jackson. So I want to focus on this sort of political biography of this person as a way to help us understand, maybe even summarize really, the shifting cultural politics of the 1960s, of the rise of a different array of politics in the 1970s, and then heading us into really what is this week is mainly about, is high, high, high politics as far, in, in, in the–as the way they are expressed through presidential politics. So basically, at any given moment, you could go through high, low, medium levels of politics. This week, we’ll be moving from the grassroots through Jesse Jackson, up through the highest echelons of power in the United States. Now last Monday, I concluded the lecture playing an excerpt from Stevie Wonder–Stevie Wonder’s song “Big Brother” from 1972. One of the lines–I don’t expect you to remember it–he’s talking about “My name is Nobody,” and saying you, the person listening, the man, “your name is Big Brother.”  And I mentioned last Monday how that’s actually a harkening to Jesse Jackson’s own politics, and you’ll see this coming out in the middle of today’s lecture. So this is just to point out these are overlapping time periods.

So Jesse Jackson. The most basic biography, starting with him as a college student. He graduates from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University down in, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Same school where, before he matriculated, four young men marched into Woolworth’s and started the famous bus boycott–excuse me, the sit-in movement. So Jackson, although not politically engaged when he gets to campus, knows that he’s arrived at a place that is suffused with now a young but very vibrant history of political engagement in the student politics of the era. He goes through A&T, graduates, and while he’s in college, finally decides to answer a call he’d been struggling with for a long time, and that’s a call to faith. So he goes to Chicago Theological Seminary. He’s in seminary when the SNCC marchers, led by John Lewis, get attacked by the police and it turns into Bloody Sunday. He leaves Chicago–this is sixty-five, of course–he leaves Chicago and heads down to Selma. You know, he is like thousands of other African American, white, brown, whatever, individuals who come to Selma to try to be part of the solution.

He’s in Alabama, and he joins other young civil rights workers on the ground, you know, a number of whom have gone on to great fame and then also infamy. People like Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, D.C., for example, was a fantastically important activist, civil–student, civil rights activist during this era. Jackson, in the midst of these other clearly talented people, he still stands out. More than anything else, he stands out because of his ability to speak. He is, you know, whatever you might think of his politics, he is clearly one of the great, one of the great speakers in our, in our moment, in our lives. And essentially, he talks his way, though sheer force of will and charisma, he talks his way into the inner-circle of leaders. He’s no longer just a foot soldier down there, trying to complete this march from Selma to Montgomery. He sees himself really having an important role to play in the inner-circle. And in short notice, he’s actually now in King’s inner-circle, so he’s right around the leader of this moment. Very early on, there begins to be whispers about Jesse Jackson: a little bit too good to believe; an incredible opportunist; you know, unbridled ambition. And these are all, you know, concerns that have followed Jackson throughout his entire political career, of course, but they’re starting at that very moment.

Chapter 2. Jesse Jackson Forms Operation Breadbasket [00:06:07]

The SCLC–[Student sneezes] bless you–The SCLC, sensing that they’ve got somebody special in their midst who can really make a difference, is engaged in something, sends him back to Chicago. And the leadership of the SCLC, King included–[Student sneezes] bless you. [pauses] Oh I thought I heard another sneeze coming, it is allergy season, after all–they see Jackson as a person who can sort of establish a beachhead for SCLC, dealing with economic issues. Now remember, S–SCLC heads to Chicago in sixty-six, so Jackson is sent there to sort of pave the ground and get things set up. What he does when he gets there is sets up a group called Operation Breadbasket, and it is a, a group underneath SCLC’s umbrella. Operation Breadbasket is solely based in Chicago and with Jackson’s great charisma and power, he starts having great success, and starts developing real, real powerful leadership networks, kinships in Chicago. Now what was Operation Breadbasket all about? 

It was about trying to diversify business opportunities and service in the black community in Chicago. This is a highly segregated city, very large and densely packed neighborhood in the south side of Chicago. It’s much more than a neighborhood. And Jackson uses a strategy he’s, he’s maintained for decades, that’s the economic boycott. So Operation Breadbasket is organized around the idea, we will boycott, we’ll gather together black consumer purchasing power, and we will boycott Chicago companies that don’t conduct better business practices in, in–business practices–practices in black communities. Because Jackson has been so successful at getting people together, I mean, Operation Breadbasket is doing all the classic things that, that civil rights groups are doing, have done, throughout the breadth of this course. I mean they’re also, you know, putting food on people’s tables, they’re providing job banks, they’re basic–doing basic education.

The company’s quickly concede because Operation Breadbasket is, is, it’s working, and so you see companies start hiring black managers. This is important. I mean this is different than the boycotts in the past, like A. Philip Randolph was threatening, where he’s trying to get as many black workers on the factory floor, thinking back to the defense industry jobs in World War II. Jackson is going at the management level. He’s goes, “We can hire all the black factory workers we want, but there will be a glass ceiling. You won’t break into management. You won’t run the business or franchise.”  That’s what Jackson’s targets–targets. Companies recognize what’s going on and realize they’d better get on board, so they start hiring black managers. Jackson then, with the support of SCLC, takes Operation Breadbasket national. It’s going to be part of a national economic engagement with race politics. Clearly, Jackson’s star is rising. It’s up in Chicago in late sixty-five and by early sixty-eight, Operation Breadbasket, that he started for the SCLC, is going national. Then Martin Luther King is assassinated. The great prince has been slain.

Now, in the moment of an assassination, people do all kinds of things that are–you know, we can overanalyze til we’re blue in the face–they do things they don’t really, can’t really quite explain. But Jackson, Jackson was kind of curious. He’s there when King is assassinated. I can’t imagine that kind of horror. And for days afterward, cameras would be following Jackson and other civil rights leaders, just trying to, you know, get a pulse on what’s happening, not just in Memphis but around the nation as cities burn. And Jackson’s wearing the same clothes that he was wearing when King was assassinated. He’s dazed; everybody’s dazed, there’s no doubt about that. But Jackson’s clothes were particularly noteworthy, because they’re blood-stained. They had King’s blood on his chest. Now Jackson was right there, there’s blood going to be everywhere. Certainly you can excuse him for not changing clothes for a few days.

And then this is where things get interesting, is that people start grousing. Jackson said he’s going, you know, he’s going down to King’s body to try to stop the bleeding. He had blood on his shirt–hands, and just wiped it on his shirt without thinking about it. It’s a natural kind of reaction. Others start saying Jackson deliberately put his hands in King’s blood and deliberately wiped it on his shirt. Now I have no idea what is true, but the fact is, this is the level of the conversation within sort of closer circles around King, trying to understand, what the heck is Jackson doing?  So you see Jackson with the bloody shirt then, being caught in this interpretative moment. Is he a symbol–is his bloody shirt a symbol of the nation’s guilt, or was the blood on Jackson’s shirt a symbol of his own anointment of his leadership status within black America? 

Now helping understand some of that really aggressive critique of Jackson, people thought, you know, what, you know, “What’s he actually doing here?”  It’s important to understand that when SCLC sent Jackson up to be an economic–set the, the groundwork in Chicago, a number of them were just trying to get him out of the South. The man wouldn’t stop talking, apparently, and King, some–according to some reports, like, “Just get this kid out of here. Send him to Chicago.”  You know, “Have him do something.”  No one expected him to succeed, but he does succeed. And his success burnishes his ego, which is certainly substantial. And of–without great surprise, his great success also causes friction. Nothing breeds contempt like success, after all. So as Operation Breadbasket continues to grow, as Jackson seems to declare himself, if not the, then one of the most important leaders in black America after King’s assassination. And there’s certainly enough confusion where that kind of claim would make sense. It becomes clear that SCLC and Operation Breadbasket are not going to succeed; they’re not going to survive together. Too many bulls in the china shop.

Chapter 3. Jesse Jackson Forms Operation PUSH [00:14:02]

So Jackson takes, or splits, from SCLC in 1971 and forms another operation, Operation PUSH. Now you may remember, thinking back to, I don’t know, a month and a half ago in the course, a month ago in the course, that after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott, King was thinking, you know, what, what’s the next thing for him to do, and Bayard Rustin says, “You’ve got to have an organization to capitalize on this energy, and Bayard Rustin wanted it to be called the Southern Leadership Conference, and King changed the name to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Well Jackson splits and forms Operation PUSH, People United to Save Humanity. It’s what the original title is. People United to Save Humanity, and it’s a perfect example of Jackson’s sense of himself, that he can lead an organization that will save humanity, but he had advisers as well, say, you know, “Jesse, that’s a bit, that’s a bit much. Heck, you’re not even thirty years old yet.”  So the name of the operation was changed before it went public to Operation PUSH, People United to Serve Humanity, much more in the spirit with the Christian ethos that Jackson stood for.

So Operation PUSH is Chicago-based. This is Jackson’s bedrock, his organizing center. Its goal is very much like Operation Breadbasket, which is black empowerment. And through Operation PUSH, Jackson essentially becomes the black ambassador to white corporate America. This is going through the 1970s. You know, think of this moment, we’re, we’re past the black political assembly. We, you now had the Congressional Black Caucus formed. You have real power, people in positions of political power in Congress. You have the angry activists, of course, certainly, and you have Jesse Jackson, who’s somewhere in between. He can speak and rally a black mass like nobody else can, truly. But he also knew how to massage, quote, the system, and talk to white business managers and corporations, first in Chicago and then ultimately nationally. He was very successful.

So he goes to huge corporations now, Coca-Cola, Anheuser, excuse me, Anheuser-Busch, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Burger King. He’s going to these businesses, knowing that there was a disproportionate amount of black purchasing power related to these corporations and their products. And he threatens a national boycott of all of these brands, unless blacks begin to give–begin to receive leadership roles in these organizations. This is now–we’re, we’ve now traversed the 1970s. Now we’re in 1981. Corporations say, you know, “We know who Jesse Jackson is, but please, we are not worried about this.”  You know, “This is a little bit embarrassing, and it’s true, we don’t have any blacks in management positions in the comp–in these huge companies, essentially none, but we’re not going to worry about it.”  The boycotts are called. And I remember the Coca-Cola boycott, mainly because I liked Coca-Cola when I able to get it–when I was able to get it and because–and this is actually more to the point–Coca-Cola owns Minute Maid orange juice. I loved Minute Maid orange juice, and all of a sudden, it was gone in my house.

Now I did not grow up in a family of black militants. I grew up in a family, my, my father can’t stand Jesse Jackson, almost personally. I really don’t know the, the, the, the source of the bile, but he just can’t stand him. But the boycott made sense to my parents. So replacing my beloved Minute Maid orange juice was this–I think it’s still made–this really bitter, nasty Donald Duck orange juice. It was just horrible. So I felt rather aggrieved by the boycott myself. But the boycott was incredibly successful, actually, and especially with Coke and all of its products. Coke starts losing money rapidly, and Coke says, “Well, we’ve got to, we’ve got to fix this,” and they start targeting black business leaders in various communities to start buying–allowing them to buy franchises, you know, the local bottling franchise, for instance. And then a funny thing happens. Once Coke changes its agenda, its, its tactic regarding this boycott, and starts bringing in black managers and franchisees, they start making money hand over fist. They’re embraced by the black community even more so than before, and they start realizing, “Hey, you know, there’s something to this.”  And so Coke becomes a model, to a certain extent, which is very important, to a certain extent, of developing a black consumer base. In fact you have, during this moment, in the wake of Blaxploitation films, who are realizing, “My god, there’s a lot of money to be made in black America.” 

You have corporations sort of waking up and realizing, “There is a huge market we have not bothered pursuing.”  You know, whether they’re high minded about civil rights or citizenship rights, it doesn’t matter. This is about the almighty dollar, so corporations start aggressively courting black America and if, in the case of Coca-Cola, that meant hiring black managers, we’re going to do it. Now, the caveat to all of this is that the glass ceiling still remains there. It’s just a little higher up. And this would become a case of great bitterness, this phenomenon, as we go through the 1980s into the 1990s, as this first generation of black managers, and women managers as well, start trying to move further up in the hierarchy, and they’re stopped. You actually have lawsuits following in Coca-Cola. Texaco was quite famous in the, in the mid-to-late-1990s as well, for a very powerful, powerfully coherent glass ceiling. But in the early ’80s, some things changed, and Jesse Jackson is the person who led that change.

Chapter 4. Jesse Jackson Runs for President [00:21:21]

Now the success of the boycott with Coca-Cola and other corporations inspires Jackson to do something more. He’s going to run for presidential office. He runs in 1984, and it’s largely a symbolic campaign, that is practically scuttled from the start by Jackson’s loose sort of “politics makes strange bedfellows” affiliation with Louis Farrakhan from the Nation of Islam. And, also, for an unfortunate remark that Jackson made himself, referring to, sort of one of these passing comments, probably made because he was quite tired. He referred to New York City as “Hymietown.”  That would be akin to calling Washington, D.C., “Niggerville” in people’s minds. The mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, is infuriated by the comment, for good reason, no doubt. And although Jackson apologize–apologizes right away, the mayor wouldn’t let up. He just keeps hammering away: this is who Jackson, Jesse Jackson, really is. Now we really know what’s up with this particular individual. And to make it worse, he’s associated with Farrakhan, sympathetic to the Palestinians. You know, the whole thing’s wrapped up in this one moment. Again, Jackson apologized for the remark as quickly as he could, and said, famously, “God isn’t finished with me yet. I’m far from perfect.”  But the slur wiped out his campaign.

In eighty-eight, he decides to run again. This time he–it is not a symbolic campaign, not by a long shot. He’s distanced himself from Farrakhan. He’s much more politically polished as far as, sort of, national presidential politics are concerned. And in fact, in eighty-eight, he terrifies the Democratic leadership when he starts beating their people, their likely candidates. Now I know it sounds like no big deal in the age of Obama, in his fantastic run in 2008, but we have to forget that for a moment, go back twenty years. And after Jackson wins the Michigan primary, he’s actually the front runner of the Democratic campaign. It’s early on, but people thought, “The–Wait, hold, stop a second!  I mean, it was cute when he boycotted Coke, you know, and his various antics over time are, you know, inspirational, certainly, but this is serious now. He’s a Democratic front–frontrunner for a series of primaries.” 

Now what’s the change between eighty-four and eighty-eight?  The big change is that, aside from being more polished, is that Jackson really masters something that Carl Stokes had done twenty years earlier in Cleveland, and he builds a coalition that hadn’t been seen at the presidential level be–had never been seen at the presidential level before, through the Rainbow Coalition, this organization that he also heads up. He reaches out through the Rainbow Coalition to people of all kinds of aggrieved backgrounds. You know, blacks, of course, are going to be his strongest base, people working in labor unions, people trying to organize into labor unions, the agricultural workers, reaching out to women, to the poor. And then during this moment of great dawning awareness of the AIDS crisis, HIV and AIDS crisis, he’s reaching out to people suffering from HIV and reaches out to the homosexual community, something that was quite shocking for Jackson. He reaches out to the disabled. And he pulls them all together in this great quilt, is the metaphor he uses a lot, and says that he speaks for everybody.

Now Jackson does not win the nomination, Dukakis does. But Jackson, of course, earns a spot on the convention floor, and his speech–and in, in prime time, which is one of the major things you want. And his speech on the convention floor is considered one of the classics of the genre. He reaches out during the course of his speech to the coalition I just talked to you about. Talks about this great quilt to be made of everyone’s separate patches. He criticizes Ronald Reagan aggressively, especially his–or especially his, what he refers to as Reaganomics, a system of economic reform that radically cut taxes to the wealthy and the idea that they would get a lot more money and they would invest more in society, and then it would trickle down, the investments, to the middle and working-classes, trickledown economics, something that Jesse Jackson thought had ravished, ravaged the American economy and the working-class in particular. And he sees Reaganomics as quite morally bankrupt.

And I want to play for you a clip from the Dem–the, the, the nomination speech–the convention speech, excuse me. And you have the actual, you know, a version of this speech in the, in the reader, I know, but it is also important to hear people, speakers like Jesse Jackson, for the way in which the great–they carry on the great oral tradition of, sort of, the black minister, the black vernacular tradition. And partly, that great black vernacular tradition allows someone like Jackson to access the language of morality and, in this case, immorality, what he sees in the current state of affairs. Now you’ll see during–unfortunately, during a highlight moment of his speech, this is on CSPAN and so they are obliged to show the crowd, and they linger for a very long time over two people who were then a lot more culturally relevant in a celebrity sort of way than they are now, Ally Sheedy and one of the Baldwin, one of the other Baldwin brothers. Actually don’t remember which one it is. But, but, so just, you know, kind of visually ignore that and, and listen to what Jackson is saying here.

Rev. Jesse Jackson:  Leadership must meet the moral challenge of its day. What’s the moral challenge of our day? We have public accommodations. We have the right to vote. We have open housing. What’s the fundamental challenge of our day? It is to end economic violence. Plant closings without notice, economic violence. Even the greedy do not profit long from greed, economic violence. Most poor people are not lazy. They are not black. They are not brown. They are mostly white and female and young. But whether white, black, or brown, a hungry baby’s belly turned inside out is the same color. Color it pain; color it hurt; color it agony.

Most poor people are not on welfare. Some of them are illiterate and can’t read the want-ad sections. And when they can, they can’t find a job that matches the address. They work hard every day. I know. I live amongst them. I’m one of them. I know they work. I’m a witness. They catch the early bus. They work every day. They raise other people’s children. They work every day. They clean the streets. They work every day. They drive dangerous cabs. They work every day. They change the beds you slept in, in these hotels last night, and can’t get a union contract. They work every day. No, no, they are not lazy! Someone must defend them because it’s right, and they cannot speak for themselves. They work in hospitals. I know they do. They wipe the bodies of those who are sick with fever and pain. They empty their bedpans. They clean out their commodes. No job is beneath them, and yet when they get sick, they cannot lie in the bed they made up every day. America, that is not right. We are a better nation than that. We are a better nation than that.

Chapter 5. The Political and Social Milieu around President Nixon and Ford’s Administrations [00:31:54]

Professor Jonathan Holloway:  So you’ll see in this, this clip here, that Jackson is talking about, is engaging the economic issues of the day and linking it to what he sees as a moral failing of the leadership of the, of the moment. Jackson is speaking against–in addition to, I’m sorry, this economic logic that was a sort of reverse Robin Hood, this trickledown economics, he’s also speaking about a culture of covert racial politics that has come to define much of the 1980s. Now, doing a quick survey, going backwards now to the early 1970s, President Nixon is in office. But due to culture of paranoia that’s in the White House, his whole presidency goes up in flames in Watergate. Gerald Ford is brought into office, after Nixon’s, former President, had to be let go. Nixon was actually pretty good on affirmative action issues, but used–in terms of trying to create job opportunities for African Americans–but he used it in a rather vicious way, as a wedge issue, to sort of break apart blacks and labor unions, labor unions being, having a very troubled relationship to affirmative action, because it disrupted the, the, the traditions of seniority.

So Nixon uses affirmative action as a tactic. Ford comes in office and he’s better on civil rights, but overall a lukewarm presidency on civil rights issues. And he’s really, I mean as it turns out, a transitional President.

Chapter 6. The Political and Social Milieu around President Jimmy Carter’s Administration [00:33:53]

And then this mystery from Plains, Georgia, Jimmy Carter, former governor of Georgia, sort of comes out of the blue, a very moderate Democrat, who now, as our politics have gotten more conservative in this country, looks like some kind of crazy liberal often. But he’s a very moderate Democrat. And actually, on, on, on racial issues, he’s actually pretty progressive, speaking of a southern tradition of governors, certainly. Carter is able to speak to black America, unlike previous Presidents had been able to. He wins huge black vote, ninety percent of the black vote; five point two million blacks vote for Carter. He wins by one point seven million votes. Now whenever people talk about this population, that population, got someone elected into office, I mean, you can cut and slice the statistics any way you can, but the belief was certainly there that the black vote delivered Carter into the White House. And there was an expectation of return.

So while Jesse Jackson’s organizing economic boycotts and, and developing into the star that he would be–really become, Carter is wrestling over how to diversify the executive branch of the federal government. He starts making numerous appointments, African Americans. Fifteen ambassadors are now black; thirty federal judges, fifty–fifty sub-Cabinet officials, a hundred and ten members of advisory boards, twenty-five members of the White House staff. These are numbers that no one had seen before. And we really are–I mean there’s a statistic that’s, that’s worth keeping in mind. We aren’t out of the woods when it comes to thinking about numbers and race in political office, by the way. In 1972, we have the first time in seventy years that you have a, a black person elected to Congress from the South. So there’s no black representation from the South in Congress, from the turn of the twentieth century into 1972, right before Carter takes office. It would be another twenty years, not until 1992, that North Carolina and Georgia send a black representative, first time since Reconstruction.

So when we’re talking about putting White House appointees in place, it may sound kind of trivial today, but you need to understand that there has been an erasure of black presence at the federal level, especially from the South–and, and Carter brings up an army of, of southern folks into the White House. One of the slams against him is that he didn’t understand D.C. In fact, he tried to play himself against D.C., and he brought in all these southern yokels–this was the critique–that didn’t understand how to navigate D.C., but he brought up these traditions as well. A tradition of black erasure, but Carter changes that. He was a real progressive on that re–in that regard. But still there is controversy. Andrew Young, former civil rights activist extraordinaire, he’s a United Nations ambassador, big deal, but meets with Yasser Arafat without authorization. He’s forced to resign. There’s this always lingering connection between African Americans and the “Jewish question” in the Middle East and Palestine.
But what really does Carter in is not sort of black advisers doing things with great independence. Basically, it’s a largely ineffective presidency. The economy that had gone in the tank during the Nixon and Ford administration stays in the tank with Carter. Students in Iran capture the U.S. embassy and start hostages–keep, keep hostages, keeps them for the, the remainder of the Carter presidency–presidency. Carter actually tried to have this incredible raid, storm the embassy, and then it was destroyed by complete ineptitude in the deserts, and Carter was exposed for being just ineffective across the board. Seeing an opportunity, tried to step in and bring back America’s pride. Oh one thing I forgot to mention, part of the economic challenges here is incredible oil crises. The Middle East is rising up in a coherent way that hadn’t been seen before and is crippling the United States over oil.

This is a period of incredible rationing of oil. Where, I know in Maryland, where I was living at the time with my parents, depending on your license plate number, you could get gasoline on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. That was it. And my parents would go and get gasoline at the local, local store, and they’d be gone for three hours, because the line was miles long, just to get gasoline. The country was caught in a vise grip.

Chapter 7. The Political and Social Milieu around President Ronald Reagan’s Administration [00:39:42]

And the former governor from California, Ronald Reagan, sees this as a great opportunity to finally realize his presidential goals. He runs on a campaign of trying to bring pride back to the United States, you know, embolden the American presence overseas. He has this idea about an economic, a new economic model that plenty of people are willing to try, because nothing else is working. And Reagan, with his incredible oratorical gifts, and they’re really quite stunning–only Clinton and Obama can come close to Reagan’s gifts, and they actually modeled themselves off Reagan’s oratorical styles.

Reagan ultimately wins in a landslide, wipes out a sitting Pres–President, and he’s given carte blanche to set a new agenda for the country, set a new agenda in Washington, D.C. He runs on a prob–on a, on a platform, largely saying that government is the problem, something we’ve all become quite familiar hearing from political conservatives, and now especially the, the fringe Tea Party, the political fringe in the Tea Party, that the federal government is the problem, and that if we could just go back to the day when the federal government wasn’t so intrusive, we’d find our way out of this mess. Reagan articulates this most famously when he declares that he’s–officially declares that he’s running for President. Now he’s running around, you know, testing out the talk in various places quietly in the country, but he makes his public declar–declaration for his candidacy in Mississippi, at the state fair. And he declares at the state fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi–I hope that rings a bell–that he’s for states’ rights. Again, federal government is the problem; states’ rights are the solution. In Philadelphia, Mississippi.

Now it’s important to belabor the point, just in case, just to make sure you don’t miss it. When, when Reagan does this, it shocks people as much as it excites people. Certainly his political base is thrilled. “Finally, someone who’s going to get the federal government off our damn back.”  Civil rights activists are horrified, for reasons I hope are painfully obvious to you at this point. I’ve already laid out over the course of the last few weeks this, this battle, no longer simmering, between the federal government’s ability to exert authority versus the state–individual state governments. So much of the civil rights agenda of the 1960s was about creating federal oversight into elections, for instance, and to access for public accommodation, places of public conveyance. The federal government was seen by African Americans and other civil rights activists–quote, friends of the movement–the federal government is seen to be the most responsible entity to preserve citizenship rights, and Reagan says, “No, that–the government is actually the problem. Let’s give power back to the states.” 

Now when you are going to Mississippi, or any southeastern state at that time, the civil rights–the heights of the civil rights movement are just a decade previous. When you go to these places and declare you’re for states’ rights, everybody knows, black as well as white, what you’re talking about. You’re talking about a return of the organizing, or the, the centralizing power of people like Bull Connor, people like Orville Faubus. You’re talking about authorizing the economic power of citizens’ councils. You’re talking about supporting in covert ways the Ku Klux Klan in the worst of the situations. Now I mentioned a few moments ago that Jesse Jackson’s fighting against economic policies. And this is in his speech in eighty-eight, the economic policies that Reagan puts into motion after he wins the presidency. And he’s also fighting against an aura, or an era I should say, of covert racial politics. And this is where Reagan’s announcement is so particularly important. Reagan never mentions anything about race when he declares for the presidency. But when you talk about states’ rights in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site where Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney would disappeared, people understand what you’re talking about.

And this is what has happened to the–and we’ll see, over the course of the next two lectures, this is what has happened to the conversation about race in America, in what is allegedly the post-civil rights moment. The laws are on the books, the Voting Rights Act–the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Affirmative action is there. You have all these mechanisms in place to pre–preserve citizenship that have been race-based because they’ve been race-denied. It is certainly not fashionable any longer, unless you’re out on the political fringe, to, to race-bait in a way that you could have before. You know, Bull Connor was proven wrong. You can’t be like Bull Connor and expect to have a political future. It’s uncomfortable to talk about race in a way that someone might, someone might interpret as, as negative. No one wants to be seen as a po–as, as racist, certainly no one who wants to get elected to office, because if he starts being seen as a racist, well, Jesse Jackson’s going to rally the troops and come after you. And I’m not really being fanciful; I’m being literal. And so you have a rise of politicians, and Reagan is an absolute expert at it, that can talk about race politics with never talking about race. And that moment, as you’ll see over–again over the next two lectures, has never left and every politician since has mastered it just as well. And we’ll pick up on that on Wednesday. Thank you.

[end of transcript]

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