One of the saddest things about history is discovering how often one’s idols turn out to have feet of clay. Even our most revered heroes have usually done something to make us cringe, or at least to search about for some sort of rationalization.
I’m not referring here to what used to be known as personal pecadilloes—which, as we have learned in recent years, few of us can agree about, anyway. What I mean is how disappointed we are to discover that our great men and women have indulged in some sort of public hypocrisy—when they have compromised, or even sold out in the name of political expediency, or when they did not live up to the political ideas they professed to believe in. Even our most revered presidents spring readily to mind. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and other founders of our liberty owning slaves, and bringing African-Americans into the Union as “three-fifths of a man.” Jackson defying the U.S. Supreme Court, and throwing the Cherokees off their land. Wilson imprisoning and savagely mistreating dissidents during World War I, Franklin Roosevelt acquiescing in the detention of the Nisei and Issei during World War II, Eisenhower refusing to defend his longtime friend and mentor, George Marshall, so as not to offend Joe McCarthy. Bill Clinton abrogating our nation’s sixty-year pledge to provide for the most indigent and helpless among us.
Presidents have always had their reasons. To get anything done in a democracy often means having to compromise away almost everything, in the cause of preserving some last, little pearl of an idea. Too often, though, the pearl is spat away along with the sand.
A recent confluence of events has served to remind us of another such empty compromise by an American president-to-be. This past summer marked the fortieth anniversary of the Mississippi “Freedom Summer,” and the brutal killings of the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael “Mickey” Schwermer. It also brought the death, after a long and cruel illness, of a leader beloved by many Americans, Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s admirers give him most, if not all, the credit for winning the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and consider him a man of singular moral vision and clarity. Yet when it came to the civil rights movement—and to acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice three courageous young Americans made in that movement—Mr. Reagan’s vision was permanently befogged by the politics of the moment.
Freedom Summer was a bold effort by the movement to win the right for all African-Americans to vote, by training over 1,000, black and white student volunteers—most of them from the North—and sending them down to Mississippi, the very heart of the Jim Crow South. The volunteers would live and work with local blacks, building up local community services to fight poverty and segregation. Above all, though, the volunteers were there to help black citizens register to vote—no easy task, considering the constant physical intimidation and legal chicanery that state and local authorities employed against them. In Neshoba County, an isolated, rural swathe of east central Mississippi, no African-American had been on the voter rolls since 1935.
Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, the senior white volunteer in Neshoba, was determined to change all that. A gregarious, 23-year-old Jewish social worker from New York, who sported a goatee and a Mets cap, he was also the very embodiment of Northern, “outsider” interference that so enraged local white Missippians. Schwerner was also a dedicated, softt-spoken pacifist, who was willing to sit down and have a friendly discussion about civil rights with anyone. None of that saved him from the unremitting hostility of local whites. Before long, he was the main target of a deadly conspiracy between local police, the Klan and other white supremacist groups, and Mississippi’s “Sovereignty Commission”—a secret, illegal state organization unlike anything that had ever been seen in the United States before, charged with doing whatever it took to thwart desegregation.
On June 16, 1964, a group of Neshoba Klansmen attacked the Mount Zion Methodist Church, located in the tiny, black community of Longdale. They brutally beat and threatened the parishioners—men and women—and demanded to know the whereabouts of Schwerner. When no one would tell them, they burned Mount Zion to the ground, one of more than twenty black churches to meet such a fate in Mississippi that summer.
Schwerner hurried back to Mississippi from Oxford, Ohio, where he had been training new volunteers. He brought one of them with him—Andrew Goodman, 20, a quiet young college student, also from New York, and James Chaney, also 20, a black construction worker and volunteer from the area, who knew both the dark backroads of Neshoba and the risks they were taking better than his white companions.
It was a fatal mistake. When the three young men went to Longdale on June 21 to get a firsthand account of the assault, they were fingered by the Sovereignty Commission, arrested by state and local police, and held incommunicado in a Philadelphia, Mississippi, jail for some six hours—while their captors rounded up a lynching party. When the civil rights workers were finally released at 10 PM, they found themselves pursued again by the local sheriff and his deputy, along with a small caravan of cars filled with Klansmen.
It must have been terrifying. Chaney decided to make a run for it in the volunteers’ Ford station wagon, trying to lose their pursuers by darting suddenly off at an exit to a smaller rural route. It didn’t work. The Klan, and the lawmen—in this case, one and the same—caught up. The three young men were taken to a sunken dirt road, where they were shot to death, execution-style—Mickey Schwerner, who had always believed in the power of human beings to work out their differences, still trying to talk to his captors out of it. Their car was burned, and their bodies buried in an earthen dam.
Yet unlike so many Mississippi blacks who had disappeared over the years after daring to stand up for their rights, these bodies would not stay buried. President Lyndon Johnson imposed upon J. Edgar Hoover to have the FBI make its first, all-out intervention in a civil rights case. With the help of a little reward money and much dogged police work, the G-men found the bodies of the murdered young men, and seven of the murderers were eventually sent to prison. In the ultimate tribute to the three young men, Johnson was able to push the 1965 Voting Rights Act through the Congress—finally guaranteeing African-Americans the right they had been promised by the constitution nearly a hundred years before.
Ronald Reagan opposed that act, as he did everyone of the federal statutes designed to abolish Jim Crow, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned segregated public facilities; and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Reagan claimed to personally deplore racism, but spoke out against all such federal statutes because of “legislative flaws and faults…[that made] parts of them…in my view, unconstitutional.” He further believed that the Voting Rights Act, in particular, was “humiliating to the South.”
Reagan would later equivocate on these views, allowing that the Fair Housing Act, for instance, had “hastened the solution of a lot of problems.” Yet he remained, at best, startlingly tone deaf on anything to do with race, and unwilling to say anything that might alienate his political constituency. On the day of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral, for instance, Reagan called the assassination of America’s greatest civil rights leader, “a great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order and people started choosing which laws they’d break”—an astonishing exercise in moral equivalizing, which seemed to associate King’s agitation for enforcement of the civil rights guarantees already embedded in the constitution, with the action of his own murderer.
But the saddest example of his willingness to kowtow to political expediency on race came on August 3, 1980, at the Neshoba County Fair—“a traditional forum for the outpourings of segregationists such as former Mississippi governor Ross Barnett,” as Reagan’s leading biographer, Lou Cannon described it at the time. The appearance was Reagan’s first stop on the campaign trail since winning the nomination that year, and he was greeted with “thunderous applause” by “a crowd almost entirely made up of whites.”
“I believe in states’ rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can at the private level,” candidate Reagan told them, speaking in the familiar code words of discrimination and segregation—even adding that, if he were elected, he would “restore to states and local governments the power that properly belongs to them.”
It sounded alarmingly like a promise to roll back every accomplishment of the civil rights era. But what Ronald Reagan said in his speech that day was not as bad as what he didn’t say. There was no mention whatsoever of the murdered civil rights workers, no acknowledgment of the cause they had given their lives to. The man who spent most of his adult life rightly obsessed with the outrages being perpetrated against human dignity in the Communist world…had no word to spare against the outrages being perpetrated against human dignity in the American South. The man who flinched at the idea of “humiliating” a state by forcing it to obey the law…was publicly indifferent to the humiliation of individual citizens being hauled into the woods by a mob, and executed by the side of a road.
Perhaps we expect too much. Presidential candidates are not in the business of telling people what they do not want to hear. Perhaps the best moral we can draw from Mr. Reagan’s failure of courage is that a democracy is pushed toward enlightenment by its people, more than it is ever pulled forward by its leaders.
I will gladly speak their names again, even if Ronald Reagan could not. James Chaney. Andrew Goodman. Michael Schwerner. “I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”