by Michael Reagan
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Who was the first black president?
Two decades before the election of Barack Obama, novelist Toni Morrison dubbed Bill Clinton “our first black president.” She even said that Clinton was “blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime.”
Well, I could make an even stronger case for my father, Ronald Reagan, as “our first black president”—but I won’t make that claim. I don’t want to diminish the justifiable pride African-Americans take in having a president who is genetically and culturally black. Our first black president is Barack Obama.
But the past two years have made one thing clear: Ronald Reagan was a far better friend to black Americans than Barack Obama has been. Just compare the Reagan and Obama records. Under Obama, black unemployment rose from 12.6 percent in January 2009 to 16.0 percent today. This means that black unemployment has increased by more than one-fourth since Obama took office.
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And the Reagan record? African-American columnist Joseph Perkins has studied the effects of Reaganomics on black America. He found that, after the Reagan tax cuts gained traction, African-American unemployment fell from 19.5 percent in 1983 to 11.4 percent in 1989. Black-owned businesses saw income rise from $12.4 billion in 1982 to $18.1 billion in 1987—an annual average growth rate of 7.9 percent. The black middle class expanded by one-third during the Reagan years, from 3.6 million to 4.8 million.
Before he was elected, in speech after speech, my father said that his economic plan would improve the lives of African-Americans. In a February 1977 CPAC address, he said, “The time has come for Republicans to say to black voters: ‘We offer principles that black Americans can and do support. We believe in jobs, real jobs; we believe in education that is really education; we believe in treating all Americans as individuals and not as stereotypes or voting blocs.'”
My father understood that, while African-Americans may vote Democratic, they live as conservatives. Like all Americans, black Americans want to succeed, they want to be free, and they want to maintain strong families.
During the Great Depression, Dad played football for Coach Mac McKinzie at Eureka College in Illinois. During a game trip to a nearby Illinois college, the team was scheduled to stay in a hotel—but the hotel manager refused to give a room to Dad’s two black teammates, William Franklin “Burgie” Burghardt and Jim Rattan.
Coach McKinzie angrily replied that the entire team would sleep on the bus that night. Dad spoke up and offered an alternative: Why not send Burgie and Jim to the Reagan home in Dixon, just 15 miles away? Dad’s parents, Jack and Nelle Reagan, would welcome his teammates—and the whole team would get a good night’s rest.
In his autobiography, An American Life, Dad recalled, “We went to my house and I rang the bell and Nelle came to the door…’Well, come on in,’ she said…She was absolutely color-blind when it came to racial matters; these fellows were just two of my friends. That was the way she and Jack had always raised my brother and me.”
Burgie was Dad’s best friend on the team—he played center and Dad played guard—and he recalled the incident, as well. Shortly after Dad’s inauguration in 1981, liberal columnist Mark Shields interviewed Burgie, who was then a retired college professor. Burgie recounted the story exactly as Dad would later tell it in his book, including the warm welcome from Jack and Nelle Reagan.
As Shields related in a November 2010 column, the incident took place “in an America where, overwhelmingly, blacks and whites did not break bread together or sleep under the same roof. In 1981—some eight months before his death—Burgie still remembered that Reagan had not hesitated to invite Rattan and him into his family home…[Ronald Reagan’s] teammate and lifelong friend William Franklin Burghardt could and did eloquently testify: The Gipper was free of racial prejudice in his personal life.”
My father was educated in a racially color-blind setting at Eureka College. In March 2009, when Mikhail Gorbachev toured the Ronald Reagan Museum at Eureka College, he seemed especially impressed by Dad’s 1932 Eureka yearbook which showed a photo of an African-American woman, Willie Sue Smith, on the same page as my father’s senior picture. Gorbachev was surprised to see a black woman in an American college yearbook of that time.
I think I know why Gorbachev was surprised. In my travels in Eastern Europe, I talked to many who once lived under Communism. They told me that the Communist schools required students to read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Students were taught that this book accurately portrayed racism in America today. When Gorbachev saw a black woman in Ronald Reagan’s graduating class, it contradicted everything he’d been taught about life in America.
Dad’s alma mater led the way in promoting racial equality—yet much of America lagged behind in race relations. In the late 1950s and 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed us toward a new era of racial harmony, in which all Americans would be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.
In a White House Rose Garden ceremony in 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill honoring Dr. King with a federal holiday on the third Monday of January every year. On Dr. King’s birthday that year, my father said, “Abraham Lincoln freed the black man. In many ways, Dr. King freed the white man…Where others—white and black—preached hatred, he taught the principles of love and nonviolence.”
On this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday, less than a month before the hundredth birthday of Ronald Reagan, it’s fitting to note that Ronald Reagan did more to improve the lives of African-Americans than any other president since Abraham Lincoln. Unfortunately, we have to acknowledge that America’s first black president has made life worse for us all, especially for black Americans.
History does not judge presidents by the color of their skin, but by the content of their policies.