By David Kurlander

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer on October 7th excoriated Republicans for playing “a dangerous and risky partisan game” by obstructing debt ceiling extensions. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell fired back, complaining in a letter to President Biden about Schumer’s “hysterics.” Some pundits agreed with McConnell’s assessment—CNN’s Chris Cilizza, for example, penned an op-ed entitled “Chuck Schumer Picked the Wrong Moment to Go on a Partisan Rant.” On this week’s Now & Then episode, “The Rise of Bully Politics,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman argued that the backlash to Schumer fits a long-term trend: Republicans wait for Democrats to defend themselves and then cry foul when the pushback comes. Heather and Joanne highlighted the precedent of the 1980 presidential election, in which incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s campaign faced similar press opprobrium after he called out Republican candidate Ronald Reagan’s racial dog whistles. The plight of Carter official Patricia Harris, who was the first Black woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, particularly illustrates the brutal effectiveness of the GOP-led trap.

On January 10th, 1977, Patricia Harris appeared before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee for her confirmation hearing to become Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Harris was on the cusp of being the first Black woman in a presidential cabinet.

Harris had long been a pioneer. She organized one of the first ever lunch-counter sit-ins, at the Little Palace Cafeteria in Washington, D.C., while an undergraduate at Howard University in 1943. After fifteen years of civil rights and social work, she returned to her alma mater for her law degree. A fierce campaigner for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, she became the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador, to Luxembourg, upon Johnson’s election. She made partner at the prestigious Fried Frank law firm in 1967, became the first Black woman to serve as Dean of Howard University School of Law in 1969, and became the first Black woman to serve on the Board of Directors for a Fortune 500 company (IBM) in 1971. 

 Midway through her HUD hearing, Chairman William Proxmire, a Wisconsin Democrat known for criticizing elitism, questioned Harris’ relationship to working-class Americans: “Will you really make an effort to get the views of those who are less articulate and less represented and certainly less likely to be knocking on your door with outstanding credentials?”

“Senator, I am one of them,” Harris responded. “You do not understand who I am. I am a Black woman, the daughter of a Pullman car waiter. I am a Black woman who even eight years ago could not buy a house in parts of the District. I didn’t start out as a member of a prestigious law firm but as a woman who needed a scholarship to go to school.”

Harris’ dramatic brush-off of Proxmire presaged a fiercely independent tenure at HUD. She used grant programs to push private investors into investing in struggling cities. She massively grew federal housing subsidies. Half of her political appointees were women, and more than a quarter were Black or Latino. In 1979, in a cabinet shuffle, Carter appointed her Secretary of Health, Education, and Wellness. 

 When Ronald Reagan emerged as the Republican candidate for President in 1980, Harris did not stay quiet. 

On August 3rd, 1980, in his first major speech after receiving the Republican nomination, Reagan, speaking to a crowd of 15,000 at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, said, “I believe in states’ 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 we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” The comments came just miles from an earthen dam where the bodies of three Civil Rights workers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner were discovered during the 1964 Freedom Summer voter registration drive. The men were killed by the Ku Klux Klan, allegedly assisted by local sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputies. Shortly before his speech, Reagan had also received the endorsement of The Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, one of the nation’s largest factions of the hate group.  

Two days after Reagan’s “states’ rights” speech, on August 5th, 1980, Harris connected the Klan to Reagan’s campaign while addressing the annual convention of the United Steelworkers of America in Los Angeles. “I will not attempt to explain why the KKK found the Republican candidate and the Republican platform compatible with the philosophy and guiding principles of that notorious organization,” Harris said. “I will leave that explanation to Governor Reagan and the drafters of the GOP platform.” 

The same day, in Dallas, Harris appeared before the Black Congress on Health and Law and charged that Reagan spoke to Black voters through “the specter of a white sheet.” 

Following the Dallas appearance, a reporter asked Harris whether her attack on Reagan was a cheap shot. “It is not a cheap shot unless you consider the truth a cheap shot, which may indeed be an attitude for those who would prefer myths to reality,” Harris explained. 

Harris’ criticism opened the floodgates to broader criticism of Reagan from the Black community. On August 11th, Andrew Young, Carter’s former U.N. Ambassador and a close mentee of Martin Luther King, Jr., penned a searing op-ed in the Washington Post castigating Reagan for invoking the loaded “code words” of segregationists. Young asked, “Is Reagan saying that he intends to do everything he can to turn the clock back to the Mississippi justice of 1964? Do the powers of the state and local governments include the right to end the voting rights of black citizens?” 

 On Labor Day 1980, Reagan further fanned the flames when he tried to turn around the KKK criticism on Carter. Campaigning at the Michigan State Fair in a Detroit suburb while Carter was speaking in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Reagan spotted a man in a Carter mask and ad-libbed, “I am glad to be here where you’re feeling first-hand the economic problems that have been committed, and he’s opening his campaign down in the city that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan.” 

Tuscumbia was not the birthplace of the Klan, and Carter jumped on the gaffe. “Anyone who resorts to slurs and to innuendo against a whole region of the country based on a false statement and a false premise is not doing the South or our nation a good service,” he told reporters in Missouri. 

Reagan issued a quasi-apology but turned the heat back on his Democratic critics. “I call on Mr. Carter to publicly disavow the comments of Andrew Young and Patricia Harris and to ask them to apologize for their unfair attempt to associate my campaign with the Ku Klux Klan.” Reagan’s running mate, George H.W. Bush, made the same pivot: “If Jimmy Carter wants to try and keep the focus on that, let him apologize for what Patricia Harris said. She impugned Governor Reagan on this whole question.” 

Carter issued his strongest condemnation of Reagan’s “states’ rights” speech and Michigan State Fair comments on September 16th, at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King, Sr. had long been a minister. The elder King was there, as were Young, Coretta Scott King, and Atlanta’s Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. “You’ve seen in this campaign the stirrings of hate and the rebirth of code words like ‘States’ rights’ in a speech in Mississippi, in a campaign reference to the Ku Klux Klan, relating to the South,” Carter told the crowd. “That is a message that creates a cloud on the political horizon. Hatred has no place in this country. Racism has no place in this country.”

The tide, however, had turned toward Reagan. Back in Washington two days later, the White House press corps buffeted Carter with critical questions about his Atlanta speech. “It was your own Cabinet Secretary Patricia Harris who first interjected the KKK into the Presidential race,” one reporter asked. “So then how can you blame Governor Reagan?” A visibly frustrated Carter responded, “I am not blaming Governor Reagan. That’s just exactly the point. The press seems to be obsessed with this issue. I am not blaming Governor Reagan.”

Carter’s press woes continued in the following days. TIME critic Hugh Sidey wrote, “The wrath that escaped Carter’s lips about racism and hatred when he prays and poses as the epitome of Christian charity leads even his supporters to protest his meanness.” The ostensibly-liberal New York Times columnist James Reston referenced “the mean and cunning antics of the Carter campaign. And conservative syndicated columnist George Will reserved particularly harsh words for Harris. “Her excuse for this exercise in Carterism (a not-very-distant cousin of McCarthyism and Nixonism) is that some fool from some faction of the Ku Klux Klan likes Reagan.” 

Harris largely stayed out of the limelight through the last month of the campaign. The vitriol over race, however, only intensified. On October 10th, Andrew Young appeared in a campaign-sponsored appearance at Ohio State University in Columbus. A student asked Young for his interpretation of Reagan’s Neshoba remarks. Young did not hold back: “You go down there and start talking about states’ rights, that looks like a code word to me that it’s going to be all right to kill n_____s when he’s president.” Ed Meese, the chief of staff for the Reagan campaign, tore into Young’s comments as “low and vicious demagoguery” and “part of the continuing Carter hatchet attack.” 

Three weeks later, Reagan won the presidency in a landslide. 

Patricia Harris unleashed a political hurricane and revealed a Republican strategy of deflection that still defines much of the brinkmanship in Washington. The success of the Reagan model, however, may be starting to corrode. Heather ended Now & Then with a note of hope for the type of Democratic confrontation embodied by Harris: “You are seeing the press starting to recognize that it’s not always a question of both sides, that that concept of both sides does in fact, let bullies dominate the conversation.”

For more on the Carter administration’s response to Reagan’s “states’ rights” speech, read Josh Levin’s moving 2019 historical essay in Slate and check out Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980

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