At the Fair, Reagan talked about football, John Wayne, Jimmy Carter, unemployment, welfare reform, bureaucracy (including education) and the Olympics. Meanwhile, Reagan’s reference to state’s rights accounted for less than three-tenths of one percent of his nearly 2000 word speech.
“Infamously” denotes memorable for a bad reason. Neshoba County is infamous as the site of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. But Reagan’s address was not infamous, not a “wink” at segregationists and hardly a “states’ rights speech.”
Folks at the Fair are proud of Reagan’s visit. After selling out last year, one of the more popular t-shirts at the souvenir stand this year featured an image of Reagan in the red, white and blue style reminiscent of artist Shepard Fairey who designed the iconic “HOPE” poster of Barack Obama in 2008. The Reagan t-shirt reads, “It All Started Here: August, 3 1980.”
Reagan did not address the civil rights murders 17 years earlier, nor did Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis on his visit to the Neshoba County Fair in 1988, nor Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Glenn on his visit.
Reagan did not come to Mississippi to play footsy with the Klan. He didn’t want their endorsement; in fact, he had received it and rejected it days earlier. He came to Mississippi because he was challenging President Jimmy Carter who carried Mississippi over former President Gerald Ford four years prior. Carter swept every Southern state in 1976 except Virginia to propel himself to the White House over Ford. By the thinking of critics of Reagan’s speech, Democrat Carter must have been a George Wallace clone running against civil rights champion Republican Ford in order to get all those votes down South. Perhaps had Carter said “states’ rights” in his malaise speech he would won reelection. Or perhaps the presidential campaign in 1980, like 2012, was about unemployment, the economy and jobs; not about race.