Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Ronald Reagan and the Struggle for Black Dignity in Cinema, 1937-1953

Academic journal article The Journal of African American History

Ronald Reagan and the Struggle for Black Dignity in Cinema, 1937-1953

Article excerpt

Neo-fascism seemed to be on the rise in the United States during the summer of 1946, press reports about anti-black and anti-Semitic groups increased noticeably over the previous year, and the FBI stepped up its investigation of the Ku Klux Klan. In southern California, the state attorney general, Robert Kenny, received reports of violence: "Negroes have been beaten, fiery crosses have been burned, synagogues have been defaced, signs and symbols of the Klan have appeared in minority group neighborhoods." (1)

Troubled by the resurgence of the KKK, Ronald Reagan agreed to participate in a radio program called "Operation Terror," part of a series about the Klan called "It's Happening Here." It aired on KLAC in early September, 1946, and chronicled more than two dozen alleged incidents in southern California as well as the lynching of blacks in Georgia. Here was the unvarnished truth about Klan terrorism, "no guess-work, no if's, but's, or maybe's, but the plain facts, witnessed and recorded."

Reagan beheld a conspiracy. "Are these just isolated cases of mob hysteria? Not on your life. There is a plan behind all this," he declared, "a capably organized systematic campaign of fascist violence and intimidation and horror.... The mobs are being stirred up; hopped up by racial hatred that is deadlier than marijuana." The violence was the work of a lunatic-fringe, "the kind of crackpots that became Reich Fuehrer; the kind of crackpots that became El Duce; the kind of crack pots who know that 'divide' comes before 'conquer."' Terrorism had to be stopped. "I have to stand and speak," he said, "to lift my face and shout that this must end, to fill my lungs to bursting with clean air, and so cry out 'stop the flogging, stop the terror, stop the murder!"' (2)

The program, supported by Kenny and sponsored by the Mobilization for Democracy, proved controversial. The Communist Party, which called the Klan "the spear head of Nazism in America," and the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee for the Arts, Sciences, and Professions (HICCASP) applauded. Los Angeles authorities, however, claimed they found little evidence of KKK activity. The violence had been perpetrated by "juveniles ... the work of pranksters," according to Mayor Fletcher Bowron. Jack Tenney's California Committee on Un-American Activities condemned the program, proclaiming the Klan "dead" since 1941. Moreover, Tenney cast a "Red shadow" over the assault on racial bigotry by calling the Mobilization for Democracy a "vicious, potentially dangerous Communist front" made up of "leftwing motion picture figures" dedicated to "fomenting racial prejudice." (3)

During Reagan's first decade and a half as a motion picture actor, he associated with several organizations that attacked racial discrimination: Warner Brothers, the Army Air Force, the Hollywood-Beverly Christian Church, the American Veterans Committee, the Americans for Democratic Action, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). But "Operation Terror" marked the high point in his willingness to fight racism through such left-wing groups as Mobilization for Democracy and HICCASP. As Hollywood came under attack during the late 1940s for harboring communists, he pulled back from those groups that pushed aggressively for civil rights. He worked most actively for performers of color through the Screen Actors Guild, where he served five consecutive one-year terms as president between 1947 and 1952. Within the context of the Guild during that period he was a liberal on racial issues, to be sure. But in a broader sense his views underwent a transformation as he became increasingly anticommunist. He steered the Guild away fro m a course suggested by Walter White, the executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. By the time he stepped down as president of the Guild he had become much less willing to challenge authority over discrimination than the NAACP and many others in the civil rights movement. …

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