Getting it Right on Reagan and Civil Rights

In endorsing extension of the Voting Rights Act, the President has taken a strong step advocated by civil rights activists. The only ones who could be disappointed by the President’s actions are not those truly concerned about the right to vote but rather those who, for whatever reason, were simply spoiling for a fight that never materialized.

In 1981, John Roberts wrote the above statement to close out the draft of an op-ed responding to publicly published criticisms from then-president of the National Urban League Vernon Jordan. Roberts’ eagerness to dabble in politics is interesting, especially considering the present administration’s attempts to paint him as simply an advocate of a client. What is more interesting, however, are his attempts at revisionist history.

When California governor Ronald Reagan kicked off his bid for the presidency the year before, “he began his campaign with a controversial appearance in Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers had been brutally killed. It was at that sore spot on the racial map that Reagan revived talk about states’ rights and curbing the power of the federal government. To many it sounded like code for announcing himself as the candidate for white segregationists.” That same year, Reagan publicly opposed the landmark Voting Rights Act, calling it “humiliating to the South.”

Roberts certainly was no champion of civil rights either. In his time with the Reagan administration, “he wrote vigorous defenses of the administration’s version of a voting rights bill, opposed by Congress, that would have narrowed the reach of the 1965 Voting Rights Act [and] he wrote a memo arguing that it was constitutionally acceptable for Congress to strip the Supreme Court of its ability to hear broad classes of civil rights cases.”


What Reagan did by signing an extension of the Voting Rights Act pales in comparison to how much the President and his administration did to undermine the very same legislation.