Mississippi’s political transformation from Democratic to Republican stronghold mirrored closely that of Ronald Reagan. Reagan campaigned for Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman in the 1930s and 1940s. Between 1876 and 1960 no Republican presidential candidate carried Mississippi. Reagan left the Democratic Party in 1962, the same time that many Mississippians began to abandon their long-held political loyalties. Republican presidential candidates carried the state in 1964, 1972, 1980, and in every election since.
Reagan first visited the state on 16 November 1973, serving as the keynote speaker for the Mississippi Republican Party’s annual fund-raiser in Jackson. Reagan criticized the politicization of Watergate and various policies of the Democratic Party. Reagan traveled to Greenville as a guest of Mississippi GOP state chair Clarke Reed on 17 November and later attended a football game between the University of Mississippi and the University of Tennessee.
Reagan returned to Mississippi on 4 August 1976 as part of his challenge to incumbent Gerald R. Ford for the Republican presidential nomination. Ford had visited Mississippi just five days earlier, as both candidates sought the state’s thirty uncommitted delegates. Reagan received a more subdued welcome than he had three years earlier. Many Mississippians disapproved of his promise to choose Sen. Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, a centrist, as his running mate.
Preparing to run for the presidency in 1980, Reagan returned to Mississippi in 1978, visiting both Jackson and Pearl on 18 October. While in Pearl, Reagan talked about the need to increase America’s military strength and the importance of states’ rights.
On 2 August 1980, with the presidential election heating up, Reagan arrived at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, where thirty thousand cheering people greeted him. His speech for the most part offered standard campaign rhetoric, but he generated a national political firestorm when he announced, “I believe in states’ rights.” Though Reagan had spoken those words for decades and had in fact used them in Mississippi two years earlier, they resonated differently in Neshoba County, where civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman had been murdered during the Freedom Summer just sixteen years earlier. Since the Neshoba visit was the first campaign appearance after the Republican National Convention (though not the official launch of the campaign), the appearance at the fair continues to possess a contested place in Reagan historiography.
Reagan was scheduled to deliver a key address to the National Urban League in New York City just a few days after his Neshoba County appearance. Aides feared that anger over his comments could derail his campaign. With criticism mounting among the national news media, Reagan visited Urban League president Vernon Jordan, who was hospitalized after a recent assassination attempt. He then spoke before the Urban League and visited the South Bronx to criticize Pres. Jimmy Carter’s lack of urban reform. After leaving New York, Reagan stopped in Chicago and visited with Rev. Jesse Jackson at the Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity) headquarters.
Reagan’s damage-control strategy worked, and the Neshoba story soon faded from the national headlines. Subsequent attempts by Carter and others to raise the issue failed. On 20 October Reagan visited the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association Boys and Girls Ranch near Columbus. The Neshoba story did not resurface in the press, and less than two weeks later Reagan won Mississippi by 1 percentage point.
President Reagan visited Mississippi twice. On 20 June 1983 he attended a United Republican Fund dinner in Jackson and praised the leadership of House Minority Whip Trent Lott. On 1 October 1984, while campaigning for reelection, Reagan stopped in Gulfport, where a crowd of forty thousand gathered. When asked whether Mississippi might become a site for the dumping of nuclear waste, Reagan responded that he would never do anything against the will of a state. He continued, “And having been a governor myself of a state, I believe in states’ rights.” Away from Neshoba, the comment produced no special media attention.
- Toby Glenn Bates, “The Reagan Rhetoric: History and Memory” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2006)
- Lou Cannon, Governor Reagan: His Rise to Power (2003)
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- John M. Hilpert and Zachary M. Hilpert, Campaigns and Hurricanes: A History of Presidential Visits to Mississippi (2018)
- Jeremy D. Mayer, Running on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns, 1960–2000 (2002)
- Kenneth O’Reilly, Nixon’s Piano: Presidents and Racial Politics from Washington to Clinton (1995)
- Roland Perry, Hidden Power: The Programming of the President (1984)