A New York Times reporter and photographer visited the Neshoba County Fair this year for a piece in the paper's Home & Garden section. The piece, "Family, Southern Style" presented - better than most - the experiences some cabin owners have at the Fair. Fair folks enjoy articles like that, both to say how it was so right, or how it was so wrong.

Apart from the food, music, cabin sleeping arrangements and culture discussed in the article, several porch sitters I spoke to asked about one particular paragraph that strayed from the focus of the story: "Since its inception, it has been a spot where political hopefuls and incumbents campaigned and orated, most infamously in 1980, when Ronald Reagan opened his presidential campaign and delivered his states' rights speech, which was considered an approving wink to the South's segregationists."

The national press has long maintained the story of Reagan's states' right speech. But in 2007, Leburn Hutchison found in the belongings of his late mother Agnes Hutchison of Philadelphia, a recording of the speech she made on a handheld tape recorder from the Grandstands. A digital version of the speech was provided to The Reagan Library and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Now we know the real story.

In 2007, David Brooks writing for - yes - The New York Times, debunked the myth that Reagan gave a states' rights speech at the Neshoba County Fair: "Reagan's speech at the fair was short and cheerful...He spoke mostly about inflation and the economy, but in the middle of a section on schools, he said this: 'Programs like education and others should be turned back to the states and local communities with the tax sources to fund them. I believe in states' rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level.' The use of the phrase 'states' rights' didn't spark any reaction in the crowd, but it led the coverage in The [New York] Times and The [Washington] Post the next day."

David Murdock echoed Brooks in the National Review Online: "Examined honestly, the diabolical phrase, 'state's rights,' ...dissolves into an innocuous call for Conservatism 101: A smaller federal government with revenues and public programs left as closely as possible to the people. If [critics] are unfamiliar with this concept, they can start by reading the 10th Amendment....Federalism may be hemlock to big-government Leftists...but advocating it is not Morse code for bigots...[Critics] failed to mention that after supposedly wooing white supremacists with encrypted Klan rhetoric, Reagan flew from Mississippi to Manhattan to address the Urban League the next day. He promoted the idea of low-tax, deregulated 'enterprise areas' to stimulate economic growth in America's ghettoes...This overture to black Americans presumably dimmed the flaming crosses of the very same voters who Reagan allegedly tried to woo just one day earlier."

At the Fair, Reagan talked about football, John Wayne, Jimmy Carter, unemployment, welfare reform, bureaucracy (including education) and the Olympics. Meanwhile, Reagan's reference to state's rights accounted for less than three-tenths of one percent of his nearly 2000 word speech.

"Infamously" denotes memorable for a bad reason. Neshoba County is infamous as the site of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. But Reagan's address was not infamous, not a "wink" at segregationists and hardly a "states' rights speech."

Folks at the Fair are proud of Reagan's visit. After selling out last year, one of the more popular t-shirts at the souvenir stand this year featured an image of Reagan in the red, white and blue style reminiscent of artist Shepard Fairey who designed the iconic "HOPE" poster of Barack Obama in 2008. The Reagan t-shirt reads, "It All Started Here: August, 3 1980."

Reagan did not address the civil rights murders 17 years earlier, nor did Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis on his visit to the Neshoba County Fair in 1988, nor Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Glenn on his visit.

Reagan did not come to Mississippi to play footsy with the Klan. He didn't want their endorsement; in fact, he had received it and rejected it days earlier. He came to Mississippi because he was challenging President Jimmy Carter who carried Mississippi over former President Gerald Ford four years prior. Carter swept every Southern state in 1976 except Virginia to propel himself to the White House over Ford. By the thinking of critics of Reagan's speech, Democrat Carter must have been a George Wallace clone running against civil rights champion Republican Ford in order to get all those votes down South. Perhaps had Carter said "states' rights" in his malaise speech he would won reelection. Or perhaps the presidential campaign in 1980, like 2012, was about unemployment, the economy and jobs; not about race.



Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. Contact him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.