The modern roots of Charlottesville

On Sunday, Aug. 3, 1980, the Republican candidate for president made the following remarks at the Neshoba County Fair:

Today, and I know from our own experience in California when we reformed welfare, I know that one of the great tragedies of welfare in America today, and I don’t believe stereotype after what we did, of people in need who are there simply because they prefer to be there. We found the overwhelming majority would like nothing better than to be out, with jobs for the future, and out here in the society with the rest of us. The trouble is, again, that bureaucracy has them so economically trapped that there is no way they can get away. And they’re trapped because that bureaucracy needs them as a clientele to preserve the jobs of the bureaucrats themselves.

I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement].

I believe in state’s rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And 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.

Conservative boilerplate perhaps, familiar to anyone following Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. The Neshoba County Fair took place, however, in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Sixteen years earlier, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney, arrested for a traffic stop in the same town, vanished from the earth. These members of CORE had also worked during the Freedom Summer registering black Americans to vote. Investigations later showed that local police had pulled them over, driven them to another location, shot them at point blank range, and dumped their bodies in a makeshift dam. A chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had collaborated with police.

Picking Philadelphia as a campaign stop was no accident. Making forthright statements about states rights, about federal overeach in “programs like education and others” was no accident.

A year after the murders, Everett Dirksen of Illinois delivered the Republican votes for the Voting Rights Act, completing the work started by Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney. The minority leader, at best a “laggard” in the words of critics when it came to securing the civil right of black Americans, voted for cloture. By January 1969, a Republican once lauded for his own commitment to civil rights began the work of undoing Dirksen’s legacy.

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