Sentimental 100th birthday tributes to Ronald Reagan rolling out this month would have us believe that the “Great Communicator” led America into a bright conservative era of prosperity, ended the cold war by getting tough with the Soviets and restored America’s confidence by flexing its military muscles abroad and reining in the welfare state at home.
But in addition to overlooking the dramatic increase in homelessness that occurred on Reagan’s watch, never mind the covert counter-revolutionary operations in Central America, promoters of Reagan nostalgia consistently ignore his record on race, civil rights, and South Africa. There, Reagan’s legacy is abysmal.
Early in his political career Reagan opposed every major piece of civil rights legislation adopted by Congress, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And even if one tries to explain away this opposition on the grounds that it came early in the history of the civil rights movement or was motivated by a misplaced reluctance to empower the federal government, Reagan’s civil rights record during his presidency is tough to justify. As President, Reagan supported tax breaks for schools that discriminated on the basis of race, opposed the extension of the Voting Rights Act, vetoed the Civil Rights Restoration Act and decimated the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). When you combine Reagan’s political record with his symbolic stance on race issues—his deriding welfare recipients as “welfare queens,” his employing “states rights” rhetoric in the same county where in 1964 three of the most infamous murders of civil rights workers occurred, his initial opposition to establish a national holiday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.—the Reagan legacy begins to lose much of its luster.
The part of the Reagan record that most impacted our generation of student activists during the 1980s was his refusal to support sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Evoking memories of America’s own Jim Crow past, images of South Africa’s police and military assaulting black civil rights activists sparked outrage on American campuses. Because American companies supplied vehicles and other technology used for these brutal attacks, students throughout the country called for the universities they attended to divest from companies that held investments in South Africa and helped to prop up the regime.
From 1984 to 1986, the anti-apartheid movement erupted across the country. In many cases, mass protests on college campuses were the most visible part of the movement. For a time, Reagan was as unmoved by the campus protests as he was by the brutality of the South African government. Reagan ascended to the White House embracing white South Africa as a valuable cold war ally, asking CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite, “Can we abandon a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve fought, a country that’s strategically essential to the free world?” In Reagan’s first term the White House violated the UN arms embargo on South Africa, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on the apartheid regime and approved a $1.1 billion IMF loan to South Africa. The administration insisted that befriending the apartheid regime via a “constructive engagement” would give the United States more leverage in South Africa than would sanctions, a claim that proved delusional.