There's been a bit of a kerfuffle over at the NYT for the last few days about Ronald Reagan's decision to kick off his 1980 presidential campaign with a "states rights" speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner. Paul Krugman and David Brooks have been going back and forth about whether or not Reagan's speech was intended to send a racist message, and now Bob Herbert has jumped into the fray.
Herbert is righteous as always, but there's another element to the Reagan at Neshoba story that hasn't gotten a lot of attention, one that speaks both to what he was communicating and how he was able to communicate it.
The Chaney-Schwerner-Goodman murders took place in the summer of 1964, during the Freedom Summer organizing campaign that brought huge numbers of white college students from the north and the west to the deep south to do civil rights work. (Goodman and Schwerner were both New Yorkers, and Chaney was a Mississippian.)
After Freedom Summer, many volunteers went back to their campuses with new organizing skills and a new sense of urgency. When UC Berkeley erupted into protest that fall a few Freedom Summer veterans were among the protest leaders, and their example inspired many who hadn't gone south. There had been organizing on campus before, but things were different after the summer of 1964, and Freedom Summer was one reason why.
The sixties student movement took a huge step forward at Berkeley that fall, and California was a crucial center of the movement in the years that followed. Reagan was elected governor of California in 1966 as a vituperative critic of the student organizers, and through two terms he governed as an antagonist of campus radicals. Goodman and Schwerner, murdered by law enforcement officials in Mississippi in 1964, their murders still unpunished in 1980, died in service to a political movement that Reagan made his political career opposing.
Goodman and Schwerner were killed by Mississippi sheriffs for engaging in precisely the kind of activist work that Reagan had used state power to suppress and disrupt as California's governor. When he went to the Neshoba County Fair, he went as one of the nation's most prominent adversaries of the student movement of the sixites. His presence in Mississippi, and the content of his speech, need to be understood in that context.