The usually somnolent pages of the New York Times have become suddenly enlivened by a fierce debate over a minor but very telling historical event. In 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign with a speech defending “States’ Right” in Neshoba County, Mississippi, where three civil rights activists had been murdered in the early 1960s. Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert have pointed out that this is a quintessential example of how the Republicans have used covert and coded appeals to racism to win over the white vote; meanwhile David Brooks has sought to defend the honour of the Gipper and the conservative movement. (Hilariously, Reagan is also being defended by National Review, a magazine that constantly derided Martin Luther King, Jr. while he was alive. In 1963, white supremists bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls. In response National Review published an editorial suggesting that the Civil Rights movement was to blame for the terrorist act).
Krugman and Herbert are right, of course. But there is one other voice that’s worth attending to. Eudora Welty (1909-2001) was, along with William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, the greatest writer to come out of the American south. She spent almost her whole life in Mississippi and her acutely observed short stories are soaked in regional knowledge. When it came to Mississippi, she knew what she was talking about.
Here is what Welty said in an interview she gave in 1985: “Mississippi is very conservative …. Reagan carried the state because he came down there and he talked about ‘We’ll be having states’ rights’ and a whole lot of things like that. You know that was very wicked of him.”
Welty was a lady of the old school. She never raised her voice and always used words precisely. When she said “wicked” she meant “wicked” with all its full and terrible connotations.