The 1980 speech Ronald Reagan gave at the Neshoba County Fair has suddenly become the topic of a national discussion (again).

Liberals have long used the speech to demonize Reagan, suggesting his mere appearance was a wink and a nod to the Ku Klux Klan.

As he was speaking of successful welfare reforms in California, Reagan told the enthusiastic crowd:

"I believe that there are programs like that, programs like education and others, that should be turned back to the states and the local communities with the tax sources to fund them, and let the people [applause drowns out end of statement].

"I believe in states' rights; I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we've distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment."

Because he invoked the term "states' rights" in Philadelphia - where only 16 years earlier three civil rights workers had been ambushed and murdered by the Klan as they registered blacks to vote - Reagan was telegraphing a coded message to white Southerners, critics have charged.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman on Sept. 27 wrote about the Republicans' continuing problems in attracting minority voters. He said that Reagan "began his political career by campaigning against California's Fair Housing Act, started his 1980 campaign with a speech supporting states' rights delivered just outside Philadelphia, Miss., where three civil rights workers were murdered."

On Nov. 9, Times' columnist David Brooks defended the former president, saying: "Today, I'm going to write about a slur. It's a distortion that's been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale."

Brooks contends that left-wing commentators use the speech as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism. (Interestingly, Michael Dukakis would campaign at the 1988 Fair.)

Bob Herbert of the Times on Nov. 14 accused Reagan of the "same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon."

On Sunday, Lou Cannon, the longtime Washington Post reporter and Reagan biographer, defended Reagan in a Times column.

"The mythology of Neshoba is wrong in two distinct ways. First, Ronald Reagan was not a racist. Second, his Neshoba speech was not an effective symbolic appeal to white voters. Instead, it was a political misstep that cost him support.

"Any fair-minded look at Mr. Reagan's biography and record demonstrates that he was not a bigot. In 1931, when Mr. Reagan was on the Eureka College football team, two black players were refused admission to a hotel in Elmhurst, Ill., where the team was playing. Mr. Reagan took them with him to Dixon, Ill., to spend the night at his parents' home. He and one of the players, William Franklin Burghardt, remained friends and correspondents until Mr. Burghardt died in 1981."

Krugman on Monday fired back, saying, "The centrality of race - and, in particular, of the switch of Southern whites from overwhelming support of Democrats to overwhelming support of Republicans - is obvious from voting data."

Brooks references a tape recording of the speech made by the now late Agnes Hutchinson of Philadelphia, which her son Lebrun digitized about two years ago and made available.

Listen to the Reagan speech at:

Krugman this week backs off his implication that Reagan was racist, suggesting instead that he sought to "benefit from racial polarization."

Perpetuating the Reagan race myth is beneficial to Democrat strategists because it keeps animosity and suspicions high between blacks and Republicans.

Blacks in the South are, after all, largely distrustful of whites and justly so when an entire race of people is systematically discriminated against for generations.

The Philadelphia Coalition - the multi-ethnic group that led the call for justice in the "Mississippi Burning" case - was successful because we forged the relationships necessary to work for the common good.

As we began to get to know one another better, galvanized by a long overdue call for justice, soon an unrepentant killer was sent to prison by a local jury - and without so much as a whimper from the Klan Reagan was allegedly winking at 24 years earlier.

I have a hunch the Southern strategy was dead or dying when Reagan came to the Fair, but I was just 16. Nine years later this community would commemorate the civil rights deaths for the first time and apologize to the families of the dead men. Sixteen years after that a man would go to prison for the murders.

Perpetuating the Reagan race myth only fuels animosity, suspicion and distrust, precisely what some strategists intend, especially the pundits who have made it a cottage industry.

No objective person in his right mind can listen to that audio link and believe Reagan is pandering to racist leanings. To do so is an insult to our intelligence - but what's new?