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William Raspberry: Reagan left America a more divided nation

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WASHINGTON — I don't mean to be graceless, but I would like to inject a slightly off-key note in the praise-fest following the death of former President Ronald Reagan.

No, I don't intend to jump up and start calling him names. Actually, I was never able to work up much dislike for the man Vice President Cheney accurately described as "graceful and gallant" — faint praise, to be sure, in contrast to the millions of my fellow Americans who endlessly profess their undying love for him. Like his admirers, I used to find myself almost believing he wasn't truly responsible for the bad outcomes of his policies.

And to tell the truth, I might have let this period of national mourning pass without a sour note from me. But I was in Mississippi when I heard the news of his death, and it came just one day after a white Mississippi newspaper editor proudly handed me a copy of the Philadelphia paper, The Neshoba Democrat.

Philadelphia, county seat of Mississippi's Neshoba County, is famous for a couple of things. That is where three civil rights workers — Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman — were murdered in 1964. And that is where, in 1980, Republican presidential candidate Ronald W. Reagan chose to launch his election campaign, with a ringing endorsement of "states' rights."

It was a bitter symbolism for black Americans (though surely not just for black Americans). Countless observers have noted that Reagan transformed the Republican Party from virtual irrelevance to the ascendancy it now enjoys. The essence of that transformation, we shouldn't forget, is the party's successful wooing of the race-exploiting Southern Democrats formerly known as Dixiecrats. And Reagan's Philadelphia appearance was an important bouquet in that courtship.

I don't accuse Reagan of racism, though while he served, I did note what seemed to be his indifference to the concerns of black Americans — issues ranging from civil rights enforcement and attacks on "welfare queens" to his refusal to act seriously against the apartheid regime in South Africa. He gets full credit from me for the good things he did — including his presiding over the end of international communism. But he also legitimized, by his broad wink at it, racial indifference — and worse.

His political progeny include Trent Lott, who recently got caught praising the overtly segregationist 1948 presidential candidacy of Strom Thurmond, and, I suspect, many Lott soulmates in the new Republican congressional majority.

I would not argue with those who say Reagan made America stronger and better off — led her international ascendancy and restored her self-confidence. He did have a grand way of expressing what was an unquestionably grand vision of America's place in the world. But in some ways, including racially, he left us a more divided nation, in part by making division seem legitimate.

That's the legacy of Philadelphia.

Oh, and that newspaper I mentioned earlier. Here are the opening paragraphs from the lead story:

"A broad-based group of citizens, business leaders and elected officials issued a call for justice last week in the 1964 slaying of three civil rights workers in Neshoba County.

"On Friday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said he has asked the U.S. Justice Department for help, a move some believe could lead to new evidence in a case that has drawn worldwide attention and brought disrepute on this community."

Maybe Philadelphia is about to fashion a new legacy — for itself and for America.

William Raspberry's e-mail address is willrasp@washpost.com.