In Defense of Reagan

Ronald Reagan during his "Tear down this wall!" speech in Berlin on June 12, 1987. || Photo credit to and provided by Zachary Wagner

Ronald Reagan during his "Tear down this wall!" speech in Berlin on June 12, 1987. || Photo credit to and provided by Zachary Wagner

The opinions reflected in this OpEd are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of staff, faculty and students of The King's College.


At King’s, house namesakes provide more than just a consistent face for a community. Rather, they help the members of a given house understand what their shared values look like in the real world. However, since King’s has such high standards for moral character, not every seemingly “great” leader in history is fit to serve as a house namesake. With the recent disclosure of Ronald Reagan’s racist comments to then-President Nixon and what some consider to be racist policies, some have argued that the 40th president should not be honored as a house namesake. However, when one considers the larger picture of Reagan’s life and examines the weak arguments against him, it is clear that Reagan was not only not a racist but that we should not remove him as a namesake. 

While his comments are undeniably repugnant and racist, they are equally an aberration from the vast majority of Reagan’s acts and deeds. From a young age, Reagan’s mother instilled in him the values of equality and acceptance at a time when many Caucasions valued neither, at least not consistently. 

In a recent interview with The National Review, distinguished Reagan biographer Lou Cannon claimed Reagan took that teaching to heart. When Reagan was enrolled at Eureka College, he invited two African-American football players to his home when a hotel denied them service. Reagan would continue a regular and very friendly correspondence with one of the players until the player’s death in 1981. As governor of California, Reagan promoted African-American staffers so enthusiastically that Wilson Riles, an African-American Democrat who served as a superintendent under him, denied the charge that Reagan was a racist. Even as president, Reagan continued to oppose racism and forcefully told the National Council of Negro Women in 1983, “I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t think that prejudice and bigotry were the worst of sins.” 

Finally, while Reagan made the repugnant comment to friend, it stands alone in the midst of his other comments. Writing for the American Spectator, lauded Reagan biographer Paul Kengor claimed the sentiment does not reappear in either his private letters or his diary, both of which have been scrutinized by writers and historians for decades. However, there are other reasons why people should be skeptical when people accuse Reagan of racism.

When some people accuse Reagan of racism, they inevitably mention his “states’ rights” speech in Neshoba County and his war on drugs as evidence for his concealed bigotry. Unfortunately, both arguments, as they are commonly presented, are unreasonable. For example, some, such as David Greenberg from Slate, claim Reagan’s choice of location was a subtle nod to white supremecists due to the Neshoba County Fair’s proximity to where the disgusting Freedom Summer Murders took place. However, as Jere Nash and Andy Taggart argue in their book Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, the location was prominent outside of that tragic night as a regular place for giving political speeches and is a convenient place to reach rural populations.

“At King’s, we know our namesakes were not angels. Though it is necessary to see these men and women in all their triumphs and failures, it would not be fair to reject one for an arguably out-of-character comment.”

-Zachary Wagner

Consequently, the mere fact that Reagan chose that location is not evidence for his alleged racism as there were innocuous reasons for choosing that place. Furthermore, Greenberg insists that Reagan’s use of the term “state’s rights” was a “code word” for white supremacists since other racists such as John Calhoun used it. The problem is twofold with this line of reasoning: firstly, Greenberg cannot support the notion that Reagan meant the term in a racist way. When Reagan used the phrase, he had just finished an argument against federal welfare programs and urged states and communities to take care of their own people. It is an idea which is quite similar to Reagan’s 1964 “Time for Choosing” speech wherein he decried the, “little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital,” who thought they could, “plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.” 

Secondly, should we assume Reagan meant the phrase in a racist way simply because others used it that way, then we must also conclude that any NYC resident who wants the metro to run on time is a secret Fascist. 

Finally, some accuse Reagan of racism due to the discriminatory effects his war on drugs caused. According to an NPR timeline, the war on drugs was nothing new in American politics by the 1980s with President Nixon having declared war on the substances in the early 1970s. Reagan, however, expanded the conflict during his term with an added emphasis on cocaine and the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing. The results were not pretty as the decision to target crack instead of the more expensive powdered cocaine resulted in more poor and minority citizens being prosecuted than other groups. I cannot know for certain why Reagan specifically targeted this drug. It is possible his move in 1986 was a response to the carnage that crack wrought on inner-city communities in the mid-1980s. However, it is one thing to show that a policy disproportionately affected one group and another thing entirely to claim Reagan intended this to occur. Reagan might not have known this would be the result. It is unfair to say that not only did he know but that he intended it so. Let us have more grace for our rivals than to immediately ascribe the worst possible motivations to their actions.  

At King’s, we know our namesakes were not angels. Though it is necessary to see these men and women in all their triumphs and failures, it would not be fair to reject one for an arguably out-of-character comment. Using that standard, no figure is safe. Churchill made disparaging remarks to women and about people in India. Lewis was initially a committed atheist. Barton committed adultery with a wounded Union officer. Sojourner Truth was part of a cult for a time. As the canon of history is not closed, we will undoubtedly learn more about these and other historical figures and we will not like some of what we learn. However, we need these namesakes. Yes, they made mistakes. Yes, they did not always adhere to their own standards of conduct. And yet, even in their mistakes, these men and women gave us examples of courage and servanthood. They risked their lives to free the oppressed. They defied expectations to do what was right. They defended the truth and by their conviction and bravery freed continents and gave us a secure, free world. To label them as devils for their failings is not only unreasonable, but it is also unjust. The King’s College, as a Christian school, is many things to many people. Let it not be said that we are unjust.