After the Washington Post revealed that Rick Perry’s family hunting property had a racist name, you would think the Perry campaign would be on its best behavior where racial politics are concerned. You’d be wrong.
On Friday Rick Perry’s wife, Anita, will visit Bob Jones University, the Christian college in Greenville, South Carolina, to have lunch with students and faculty. BJU has an unpleasant recent history regarding race. It did not admit any black students until 1971, and it did not admit unmarried black students until 1975. Fearing that it would lose its tax-exempt status due its racist policies, in 1975 BJU admitted unmarried black students. But it simultaneously adopted rules banning interracial dating.
The IRS revoked its tax-exempt status in 1976. The university filed suit, objecting that its racial policies were grounded in real religious conviction. Bob Jones won in federal district court, but lost on appeal. In 1982 the Reagan administration, shamefully pandering to racism, authorized the Treasury and Justice Departments to drop the case, but reversed itself under political pressure. The Supreme Court upheld the IRS’s ruling in an 8-1 decision. (Justice William Rehnquist, naturally, was the only dissenter.) The school chose to pay millions of dollars in taxes rather than change its rule.
Given BJU’s location in an early primary state, and its reputation as a bastion of conservatism, it has been a site for previous Republican presidential campaign pilgrimages. In 2000 George W. Bush spoke there. He did not mention the school’s racist policy, nor the fact that the first three school presidents had publicly expressed aggressive anti-Catholicism. In response to the negative media attention surrounding Bush’s speech, Bob Jones dropped the ban on interracial dating. John McCain tried to capitalize on Bush’s speech to drive a wedge between Bush and Catholic voters. BJU returned the favor when one of their professors, Richard Hand, started the infamous e-mail rumor that McCain had fathered illegitimate children.
Speaking at Bob Jones could also be considered an endorsement of anti-Mormonism. In 2000, then-president Bob Jones III referred, on the university’s webpage, to Mormons and Catholics as “cults which call themselves Christian.”
Of course, courting racial controversy can be a deliberate strategy for conservative Republicans. When Perry ran for Texas agriculture commissioner against Democrat Jim Hightower in 1990, he exploited Hightower’s endorsement of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the 1988 presidential primary. Perry’s campaign, run by Karl Rove, made television commercials showing Hightower with Jackson. Lee Atwater, Rove’s friend and mentor from their days in the College Republicans, came from South Carolina. Atwater used divisive tactics in South Carolina such as commissioning push polls to remind voters that Democratic Congressional candidate, Max Heller, a Holocaust survivor, was “a Jew who did not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.”
He also made the infamous Willie Horton ad, linking 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis to an African-American rapist who committed a crime while on a furlough from prison. More recently Perry has upset African-Americans in Texas by adopting the Civil War rhetoric of states rights and secession.
Anti-Mormonism is also a potentially promising avenue for Perry to pick up conservative votes. At the Values Voter Summit in Washington on Friday, prominent Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress gave Perry an introductory endorsement. Christians, according to Jeffress, should choose ““a genuine follower of Jesus Christ,” rather than a Mormon such as Mitt Romney. Jeffress later told reporters that he considers Mormonism “a cult.” Perry said he disagrees with that assessment, but many socially conservative Republicans agree with Jeffress. So perhaps Perry is winking at segregationists and anti-Mormon Christians by sending his wife to Bob Jones University.
The Perry campaign did not respond to a request for comment.