Trump’s Juneteenth Tulsa Trip Smacks of Reagan’s 1980 Campaign Visit to Rural Mississippi

In pursuit of the presidency, and the defeat of an incumbent southern Democrat, Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign took a trip to a sparsely populated county in rural Mississippi to win over working-class white voters bitterly enraged by federal laws and court orders aimed at integration.

To win over the people of Neshoba County, Mississippi, Reagan boasted of his firm belief in “states rights,” a code word for sustaining the apartheid rules of Jim Crow. Reagan was eager cement the support of white working class Southerners who had voted Democrat ever since FDR’s New Deal helped pull them out of poverty.

Not lost on either the attendees or reporters covering the visit by the Republican presidential nominee, Neshoba’s county seat, Philadelphia, Mississippi, was the site of one of the most infamous murders of the civil rights movement: the June 1964 killing of three civil right workers, two white men and one black man, by local members of the Ku Klux Klan. The murders grabbed national, and international headlines, and painted Neshoba County with infamy. For much of the country, Neshoba was the home of hardened segregationists. For locals, the Freedom Summer volunteers were intruders who had no business telling Mississippians how they should run their local elections, or any other aspect of their closed society.

Reagan Shakes Hands at the Neshoba County Fair, 1980

Forty years later, the Republican President Donald Trump, an heir of Ronald Reagan’s successful cementing of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” decided upon Tulsa, Oklahoma as the site for his first major public rally since coronavirus outbreak and the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis sparked protests and rallies in more than 140 cities and towns across the country. Curiously, Trump had chosen to speak in Tulsa on June 19th, widely-known among African-Americans as Juneteenth, the official end of slavery in 1865.

When political opponents blasted Trump for the apparently tone-deaf timing of the Tulsa rally, he backed off, moving the event to the following day. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott explained that the president was unaware of the significance of Juneteenth or the 1921 massacre in Tulsa by a white mob that attacked, murdered and burned the black neighborhood of the city’s Greenwood District, known at that time as the Black Wall Street, shooting and killing up to 300 people (though some historians place the death toll even higher.)

Though the Republican Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford acknowledged “there are special sensitivities there in Tulsa,” to the Greenwood Massacre, the timing of the campaign rally, Trump said, coming as it does in the wake of the George Floyd protests, should be seen as a “celebration.” Exactly who might be celebrating was unclear though judging from Trump’s recent tweets extolling “law and order,” the president aims to appeal to those more bothered by the destruction of some stores in the wake of the protests than the propensity of police officers to use excessive force against blacks than white and other minorities.

Tulsa’s historically black Greenwood neighborhood following the 1921 Race Massacre.

Back in 1980, Ronald Reagan took much the same approach. Reagan, the toothy, B-movie actor who made his political mark in Hollywood supporting Joe McCarthy’s virulent and largely successful attack on liberals and other dissidents, wanted the all-white crowd at the Neshoba County Fair to know that he understood their contempt for the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). By 1980, however, those frustrations centered on forced busing, and similar federal and court efforts to end discrimination in housing, employment and voting.

The first Presidential candidate to speak at the fair, Reagan keenly understood that white Southerners, as well as working-class whites in northern cities, long had viewed federal efforts to end institutional racism as illegitimate federal intervention. Considering that Neshoba County’s population was 24,000 in 1980 (today, it’s 29,000), Reagan’s trip to rural Mississippi was a very big deal.

“I believe in state’s rights,” Reagan told the overwhelmingly white crowd. “I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I’m looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.”

Reagan never mentioned the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner even though the fairgrounds were a short distance from where the bodies of the three young men were found in an earthen dam. Reagan also didn’t speak in favor of the civil rights movement, which had exposed Mississippi, with its proportionately large black population, as a cruel place for anyone advocating racial equality. Reagan would defeat Georgia’s Jimmy Carter in 1980, taking Mississippi by 1%.

It is questionable whether President Trump will mention the Greenwood Massacre when he speaks in Tulsa later this week, 99 years after the largest race riot in American history. Greenwood’s 35 square-blocks was home to one of the largest concentrations of African-American-owned enterprises and wealth in this country. It is unlikely that Trump will remark on the recent discovery of mass graves used to bury victims of the firebombing or local efforts in Tulsa to officially recognize and make amends for the murder and destruction.

Just as a prominent Mississippi Republican had recommended Neshoba County as the place where Ronald Reagan could find “George Wallace-inclined voters,” Donald Trump has chosen Tulsa as the place to reconnect with those his so-called “base” who apparently also view the multi-racial George Floyd protestors as “thugs” or applaud this president’s threat that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” No Republican or Democratic presidential candidate visited the Neshoba County Fair until Trump sent his son Donald Trump Jr. to the event in August 2016 immediately after the Republican convention rather than to a previously scheduled event aimed at Latinos.

Trump, in the words of Mississippi writer David Dallas, shows no signs of rejecting his party’s “race-baiting Reagan legacy.

If there was any doubt about Reagan’s eagerness to use race to win over white voters, he visited Neshoba again for his 1984 re-election campaign, and offered, to the delight of the white crowd, the Confederate battle cry of “The South Shall Rise Again.” Similarly, Trump is betting his Tulsa rally will also help bring him a second term.

 

This Stunning New Youth Movement for Social Change

The enormous, spontaneous, social protest movement that emerged following the video images of George Floyd’s death will be remembered for many things.

First among them is that the issue of police brutality against black men and women went national. It was a cause embraced by protestors in cities and towns large and small across the country (more than 140, and counting.) That didn’t happen in the 1960s. That didn’t happen during the Reagan years nor during the demonstrations against the U.S. war in Iraq. Public protests took place mostly on college campuses and a handful of large cities.

Also new was the leaderless construction of these gatherings. That wasn’t by accident. Contemporary activist organizations have learned that movements without a clear set of leaders are harder to vilify. It’s maddening for critics, and for much of the media, who want to interview and oftentimes, to demonize leaders in order to discredit a movement. A movement without a clear set of leaders keeps the focus on the issue, in this case police brutality (though not limited to it.)

Black Lives Matter, which formed in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. in 2014 and Eric Garner a month earlier in Staten Island, N.Y., has consistently adhered to the leaderless form. The group has also learned a lot about the police, and police tactics; the oppressed are generally more perceptive about the oppressor than the reverse. Groups of white demonstrators are sometimes pushed to the front of a crowd as a means of showing police that the demonstrators are multi-racial while owing to the propensity of police forces to treat whites less harshly than blacks.

 

Mandatory Credit: Photo by William Volcov/Shutterstock (10665415m) Protesters during a protest in New York City in the United States this Sunday, 31. Protests across the country were motivated after the death of George Floyd on May 25, after being asphyxiated for 8 minutes and 46 seconds by white police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Protest after the death of George Floyd, New York, USA – 31 May 2020

Importantly, the rallies, demos and gatherings, especially in cities smaller than New York or Los Angeles, have become teach-ins, opportunities to meet, to organize, to build local networks. More generally, the protests have become a gigantic coming-out party for a Millennial generation that has long been accused of being self-centered or unconcerned with the world around them. The fact is that this generation is naturally connected to social media, and its historically exceptional means to organize and inform. The ability to communicate quickly with like-minded people has made it possible to hold demonstrations anywhere at any time.

And then there’s the factor of Covid-19, and how that shaped these demonstrations. That these protests took place during an alarmingly dangerous global pandemic made for a decidedly younger demographic. Teenagers, men and women in their 20s and 30s, were more likely to brave fears of contracting this virus than older folks. After more than two months of quarantine, it was simply untenable to sit by idly while police killed an unarmed black man in broad daylight. Add to that picture a president who has long offered unveiled support for white supremacists, authoritarian dictators and the cruel treatment of undocumented immigrant, not protesting was indefensible.

Once the video of George Floyd’s brutal death went viral, thousands of young people, cooped-up inside of their homes, decided en masse that this murder, this death, in the midst of a pandemic and a deeply troubling presidency, was so serious that they would risk their own personal health to protest.

As for the gathering themselves, Covid cleared out the oldsters. There was no Jesse Jackson or Rev. Al Sharpton or even celebrities such as Susan Sarandon to lead the protests. The generation of the 1960s or the Reagan years or the Iraq War couldn’t play the elder card to take the microphone. Most importantly, this was a multi-cultural movement of black and white, Latino and Asian, African and European. And while some of the older-than-40 crowd weaved their way in, the crowds and crowds of protestors, whether amassed in Brooklyn or Boston, Columbus or Louisville, or even Fargo and Boise, skewed young. For political organizer anxious about getting young people to actually vote in November’s election, this organic participation in dissent was probably the best news of all.

The George Floyd protests protests have the potential to eclipse the anti-government Tea Party Protests that emerged in 2009 following the Obama Administration’s efforts to address the loss of jobs and housing caused by the Great Recession. The Tea Party movement was sparked by an on-air rant from the CNBC bond market commentator Rick Santelli when he used his usual live broadcast from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade to assail Obama’s decision to assist distressed homeowners. It was pure populism. In Santelli’s estimation taxpayer money shouldn’t be used to “bail out” thousands of homeowners who had been forced to default on their loans. And millions of people agreed.

The Rant, as it became known, fueled the Tea Party Movement, a mix of libertarian and “small government” . and the Democrats loss of the senate in the mid-term elections of 2010 the accompanying ascendancy of Mitch McConnell as a national powerbroker hellbent on obstruction.

The Tea Party movement eventually petered out but its adherents found new life in the campaign and presidency of Donald Trump. The murder of George Floyd, meanwhile, has given form to a nascent movement that has been lying in rage for three years, simmering, exasperated, but not entirely sure how it could all come together.

One early sign is very positive: even as the focus turned to the issue of police oversight and accountability, the larger issue of alternative to police funding, took center stage. Calls to reduce the New York Police Department’s $6 billion budget by $1 billion, and spend that money on schools, job training and neighborhood improvements, has gathered steam leading credence to the notion that the George Floyd protests weren’t only about police brutality. There’s far too much going on. 

 

America’s Police Need a Lesson in the First Amendment

In 1919, the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes told his mostly conservative colleagues on the court that the actions of Jacob Abrams and four other Russian immigrants to print and distribute two leaflets condemning U.S. intervention in the Russian civil war did not present a real or immediate danger to the nation’s security.

In Abrams v. United States, Holmes wrote that “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions . . . unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purpose of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.”

Apart from the young Justice Louis Brandeis, Holmes’ fellow justices were unimpressed. Abrams and his accomplices lost that case, 7-2, and were given stiff 20-year jail sentences. Mollie Steimer’s sentence was reduced to 15 years on account of being a woman.

Jacob Abrams is on the right joined by Hyman Lachowsky, Jacob Schwartz and Mollie Steimer

But Holmes’ dissent, which turned 100 last year, lived on far longer than his colleagues crabbed view of the First Amendment. Holmes’ impassioned and righteous defense of dissent fueled our modern interpretation and subsequent application of the right to free speech and assembly.

Judging by the conduct of too many policemen in response to the George Floyd protests, it is painfully clear that these municipal employees are in dire need of a crash course in civics.

The First Amendment, Holmes wrote, was created to give space to those who offer views counter to society’s prevailing positions or the positions of those in power. In writing his dissent in Abrams, Holmes declared that all views should have space within a “marketplace of ideas.” If such speech is accepted by the citizenry, than so be it. If it is condemned, let that happen as well. What made this country great, Holmes might have said, was its brave experiment in democracy: a government governed by its citizens. Integral to that experience was the First Amendment’s audacious proclamation conferring a right to free speech and assembly.

As the George Floyd protest have sadly made clear, police misconduct, excessive force and gratuitous violence appear to be commonplace. In Indianapolis, Buffalo and repeatedly in New York City, police appeared to take the mere presence of protestors as justification for rough treatment, the gratuitous use of pepper spray or arrests. Groups of heavily-armed police routinely struck peaceful protestors acting well within their constitutional rights to assemble and express dissent. In Tacoma, Wash., a young black protestor, died in policy custody of respiratory arrest due to physical restraint.

Law enforcement officers unleash a stream of pepper spray at protesters on State Street in Chicago during a protest over the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody on Memorial Day in Minneapolis.
 Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

As the New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote on June 10, Black Lives Matter “activists set out to show that police brutality was pervasive. The police have now made that clear.” For much of the country, the notion that police are impartial arbiters dutifully applying the laws of the land was rudely shattered.

In a later Supreme Court case, U.S. v. Schwimmer (1929), just three years before he retired from the court, Holmes wrote probably his most compelling words in defense of the Constitution’s extraordinary defense of free speech: “if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Some 50 years after Holmes’ dissent in Abrams, the Supreme Court further expanded the application of free speech in a case of anti-Semitic and anti-black statements made at a small gathering of a Ku Klux Klan faction in a field in rural Hamilton County, Ohio. That case, Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) established that speech advocating illegal conduct is protected under the First Amendment unless the speech is likely to incite “imminent lawless action.”

Brandenburg went beyond Holmes’ “clear and present danger,” to assert that speech was free unless the words were “likely to produce” concrete lawless action. That was an enormously important decision for both police and protestors. While it makes clear the power of non-violent civil disobedience, it also underscores the sanctity of protest, the right to dissent. That the NYPD had been spying on Black Lives Matter activists for five years only served to throw oil on an already simmering fire.

Unlike in decades past, two-thirds of the country expressed their support for the George Floyd protests, an acknowledgement that do no incite “imminent lawless action” are well protected by the First Amendment. Unfortunately, police conduct at protests across the country revealed that too many police appeared to have missed that lesson.

Police officer filmed beating protesters with baton in Philadelphia.