Reagan’s Steps to the Wrong Side of History, from B-Movie Hero to Civil Rights Zero
August 12, 2020
President Ronald Reagan won over voters with his Midwest wholesomeness, his rehearsed charisma forged from years as a B-movie actor, and more importantly, his “old-fashioned” American pride. His sense of American pride appealed massively to white conservatives, as well as converts to Republicanism, and threw obstacles in the path of civil rights legislation. His racist policies were devastating for Black and Brown Americans during his presidency, and the effects still resonate today. Need we say more about our forty-fifth president who inherited his legacy?
But Reagan wasn’t always a staunch conservative who deflected charges of racism with that sunny, Golden State smile. Comedy Central’s Drunk History narrows in on his romance with aspiring actor Nancy Davis as the turning point. As hilarious as it is, and by virtue of being a five-minute skit, it glosses over his gradual conversion from liberalism to conservatism and singles out Davis as the culprit. She wasn’t. She helped but doesn’t deserve all the credit. Reagan’s politics were already steering toward the right before the two of them met when J. Edgar Hoover came to court him with the Red Scare. These facts from Daniel Lucks’s Reconsidering Reagan: Racism, Republicanism, and the Road to Trump outline in eighteen steps how Reagan would become a juggernaut opponent of civil rights. Keep your eye on the timeline.
Step 1: Ronald Reagan was born on February 6, 1911, in Tampico, Illinois. His father, Jack Reagan, a raffish, garrulous Irish Catholic salesman, despised the Ku Klux Klan and any semblance of racism or anti-Semitism. His mother, Nelle, infused young Ronald with a strong dose of racial liberalism. According to Reagan, she “was absolutely color blind” and instructed him to “judge everyone by how they act, not what they are.”
Fast-forward . . .
Step 2: In the spring of 1937, when he was a radio sportscaster, Reagan arranged a trip to cover the Chicago Cubs spring training on Catalina Island with the intention of exploring a film career. There, he met a Hollywood agent who got him a screen test with Warner Brothers. The studio was impressed by Reagan’s presence and offered him a seven-year contract.
Step 3: Reagan never fulfilled his dream of becoming a movie star but worked steadily and achieved a string of small successes playing lead roles in thirty-one B movies between 1937 and 1943. Warner Brothers packaged Reagan’s Midwest wholesomeness and boyish charm with such skill that he famously referred to himself as “the Errol Flynn of the B’s.”
Step 4: The wartime years and his stint of narrating films for the Army Air Corps deepened Reagan’s interest in politics. After the war, Reagan’s determination to become an A-list move star was stymied by his wartime absence from the screen and the emergence of a new generation of actors, so he increasingly devoted his attention to liberal politics.
Step 5: After the horrors of the US bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945, Reagan became an early proponent of the abolition of nuclear weapons and the internationalization of atomic energy.
Step 6: The culmination of Reagan’s progressive political activism was his narration of Operation Terror, a thirteen-part radio program aired in 1946 about the spike of Ku Klux Klan activity in Southern California and Jim Crow Georgia. The program was sponsored by the Mobilization for Democracy and the Hollywood Writers Organization, two popular front organizations that had formed a coalition with a broad array of leftist groups to fight fascism.
And then the Red Scare flared. Reagan’s political affiliation starts to take a right turn.
Step 7: As J. Edgar Hoover fixated his gaze on snuffing out alleged Communists from Hollywood, he noticed Reagan and his political activities showing up in reports from the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. He was eager to cultivate more informers in Hollywood and was aware that Reagan’s brother, Neil, a conservative advertising executive in LA, was working as an informer in the FBI’s investigation of the entertainment industry. So one evening in 1946, three of Hoover’s agents paid a visit to Reagan and his then wife Jane Wyman.
Step 7.5: Reagan initially hesitated to get involved in informing, but changed his mind after the agents told him that the Communists in Hollywood despised him and had just held a meeting where someone said, “What are we going to do about that son-of-a-bitching bastard Reagan?” Later, he came to believe that the Soviets were not only intent on gaining control of Hollywood but also striving to influence the content of its films. Reagan consented to meeting regularly with them to discuss some of the things that were going on in Hollywood. His contacts with the FBI would become regular enough that he earned the informer’s number T-10. Over the years, his relationship with the FBI deepened; during the 1960s, Hoover would lend his power to aid Reagan’s political rise in California.
Step 8: In the spring of 1947, Screen Actors Guild’s board elected Reagan as president, a post he would hold for the next five years, making him one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood. His newfound status exhilarated him, and around this time he confessed to actress Patricia Neal that he dreamed of being president of the United States.
Step 9: FBI documents prove that despite his repeated denials, Reagan was complicit in implementing the Hollywood blacklist that barred suspected Communists from working in the movie industry. He privately provided names of suspected Communists to the FBI and even told the FBI that he believed Congress should declare the US Communist Party illegal.
Step 10: Anti-Communism would become the animating cause of Reagan’s life. A casualty of his myopic anti-Communism would be his youthful concern for racial justice. From this point on, Reagan perceived civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and, later, Nelson Mandela, through a Red Scare prism.
Step 11: Until the end of his life, Reagan viewed the Black freedom struggle as part of a Red plot to undermine the American system and allied himself with white supremacists who shared his enduring anti-Communism and profited politically by these alliances at the expense of civil rights and antiracism.
Step 12: By the early 1950s, Reagan’s politics would drift precipitously rightward. Over the years, both Reagan and his supporters would use Reagan’s youthful racial liberalism as a shield to parry the charges that Reagan’s racist politics and policies evidenced his racism.
Enter Nancy Davis, stage right.
Step 13: Reagan’s 1952 marriage to aspiring actress Nancy Davis was another step along his path from Cold War liberal to staunch right-wing conservative. Nancy’s preference for the society of wealthy people thrust Reagan closer to conservative friends such as the actors Richard Powell, William Holden, and Robert Taylor. Nancy shared Reagan’s disdain for left-wing causes and never showed any interest in or sympathy for the civil rights movement.
Step 14: Reagan was a charter subscriber of the National Review, launched by William F. Buckley, Jr., and held dear the memory of picking up the first issue in its plain wrapper. He, too, wanted to stand “athwart history,” as the magazine’s mission statement said in its inaugural issue. National Review favored legal segregation in accordance with “states’ rights” and argued that Black people’s alleged backwardness justified the right of Southern whites to prevail over Blacks. Contributors endorsed pseudoscientific racist opinions about Black people. By fusing the strands of militant anti-Communism, libertarianism, and traditionalism into a comprehensible intellectual movement, the Review founded modern conservatism.
Step 15: On July 2, 1964, with the support of twenty-seven of the thirty-three Senate Republicans, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, effectively outlawing segregation in public accommodations. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater was nominated as president on the first ballot with an approving Reagan, now officially a Republican.
Step 16: Reagan’s star performance with his “Time for Choosing” speech ignited a groundswell of hope among conservatives that the fifty-three-year-old former actor would lead their nascent movement out of the political wilderness.
Step 17: The smoldering racial anxiety that flared in the wake of the Watts riots in August 1965 cemented Reagan’s standing with white Californians, fearful of crime and neighborhood desegregation. By the end of 1965, race was the wedge issue that facilitated his appeal to white working-class voters who had typically voted for the Democratic party.
Step 18: By the time Reagan launched his campaign for California governor, on January 4, 1966, white backlash had become a dominant force in American politics and a threat to liberalism. Reagan’s announcement speech was taped at his home before a crackling fire and then distributed to reporters.
Now rewatch Drunk History’s skit with this context.
About the Author
Christian Coleman is the associate digital marketing manager at Beacon Press and editor of Beacon Broadside. Before joining Beacon, he worked in writing, copy editing, and marketing positions at Sustainable Silicon Valley and Trikone. He graduated from Boston College and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Follow him on Twitter at @coleman_II.