Last week the Neshoba Democrat reported the discovery of a recording of Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign kickoff speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi.
While we wait to find out whether there will be public access to Reagan's speech, it may be informative to peer into the place where Reagan spoke. Melina was at the 2005 Neshoba County Fair, just one month after Edgar Ray Killen was convicted on three counts of manslaughter for the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman:
The Neshoba County Fair's most famous role is as a venue for Mississippi political speakers. There are only 2.8 million people in the state, and a lot of the most important ones like to hang out at the Fair in their expensive hovels, so as a result, any Mississippi politician who is seriously stumping for office has to put on his shirtsleeves and take a turn sweating it out at the outdoor podium. It's traditional. Sometimes it's not just Mississippians who show up to pay their dues -- none other than Ronald Reagan kicked off his first presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair. This year was not an election year, so the schedulers tried to book current and former elected officials to speak. The turnout was great. There were about four former state governors who showed up, as well as the current one, which made for an astonishing sight....
Before any governors spoke, the state attorney general Jim Hood had spoken - briefly, but intensely. He was the one who made the decision to re-open the case of the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, which had ended only a few weeks before in Neshoba County with the conviction of Edgar Ray Killen, a native Neshoban. My boss was very apprehensive that he would not get any support from the audience when he spoke or that he might even be booed.
Well, he was not booed, but there was no standing ovation either. He got a little polite applause when he came up to the podium, but in the noisy outside auditorium, wood-hewn benches under a roof with fair-goers milling all around, you could hear a pin drop when he began to speak. And he didn't mince words. "Aren't you proud of Mississippi?" he started off. "Aren't you proud to be from Neshoba County and proud to know that Mississippi did the right thing?"
The audience seemed, I'd say, maybe a little bit proud. They did clap, a little bit. But many of them sat very, very quietly, thinking who knows what. Overt racism is not in fashion in Mississippi politics. You just get these little crypto-racist moments ... and also this weird overall attitude toward their history: as far as I can tell, the general mentality of white politicians and of many white Mississippians is that they work very hard to believe that there were never any Klan members and lynching-watchers and quiet racists among their parents and friends and family. They kind of like to think that Killen and the other men who murdered the civil rights workers were evil men from a little evil space ship, who made landfall in Neshoba county, did their evil deeds without any knowledge or support from the community, and were either brought to justice or quietly disappeared somewhere (perhaps to their evil home planet) where they are far too far away for the arm of justice to reach. And so, we should put the past behind us. And so, Mississippi and her fair native (non space-ship-based) citizens have nothing to be ashamed of. And so, everything is fine now and equal now. And so, it's not very nice of Attorney General Jim Hood to go on bringing it up, even if he is praising Mississippians for "doing what was right."
Essentially, they're fighting a battle to avoid historical context. Holocaust eduation is mandatory in Mississippi public schools. Civil rights history education is not.
Neshoba County is 20% black, and Mississippi is 36% black. But I only saw about two black families visiting the fair the entire day I was there, and one local said that she thought that *none* of the cabins were owned by black families. But it's not that they're not there --it's that they're not guests, not visitors. Black people maintain the fair grounds. They drive the horses in the harness races that fairgoers bet on.
The current governor was the last to speak. He is this big red-faced guy who, rumor has it, is planning to run for president in 2008.... He gave a cheerful speech about his his successes (after a year and a half in office, he claims, job creation rates are at their highest since 1999) and declared Mississippi to be the safest state in the country for the unborn. He was also the only governor to not mention the trial at all. I guess he thinks it's over and done with, and that everyone should just be looking toward the future.
This long excerpt includes the parts of Melina's account that relate most directly to what I cover here, but there is quite a bit more, and it is all worth reading.
In 1980 Neshoba County's only claim to fame was as the location where a band of Klansmen murdered James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman on June 21, 1964. As noted in the Neshoba Democrat article about the Reagan recording,
Reagan's visit to the Fair was his first public appearance following his nomination with over 30,000 said to be in attendance.
Before the assembled throng, the presidential hopeful declared:
I believe in states' rights. I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to the federal establishment.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson has rightly called this a battle cry, the launching of the Reagan revolution, a coded promise to "roll the clock back to the pre-civil rights days when blacks, minorities and women knew their place."
- Learning from the Charles Moore and Henry Dee Murder Case
- Getting the Facts on James Ford Seale
- Neshoba Justice Revue
- Sam Bowers is Dead
- Celebrating the Confederacy in Philadelphia, MS
- Civil Rights Tours Make Good Business
- Cashing in on Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman
- Honest Appraisal
- Products of the Environment