Last week it was hard not to notice a great American had died. There were front page newspaper stories, TV coverage, and the radio waves were filled with his voice. On Friday, every post office in the nation shut down in his honor. Well, at least we can dream the person we're talking about had been Ray Charles, and not Ronald Wilson Reagan.
They say famous deaths come in threes, but in this case, two was enough to put an ironic spin on the week's events. Repeatedly, corporate media talking heads told us why Ronnie was worthy of saintly status. They called him an enduring symbol of our nation's freedom, an optimist who ended the Cold War, and lots of other fawning superlatives. Glossed over was any mention of Reagan's legacy as a divider, a politician who spent much of the 1970's traveling the country peddling thinly veiled racism, telling white audiences made-up anecdotes about welfare queens driving Cadillacs.
While being interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air in 1998, Ray Charles reminded us that music isn't about color, and that's what makes it so beautiful. He reminisced about the integrated world of the big bands and jazz musicians of the 40's and 50's, and talked of how he'd once toured with a "hillbilly" band known as the Florida Playboys. At the same time, in Hollywood, the future 40th President of the United States was helping Joe McCarthy conduct a witch hunt in the U.S. film industry as head of the Screen Actors Guild. Instead of standing up against McCarthyism and red-baiting, Reagan was one of its cheerleaders, ruining the lives of numerous blacklisted actors, writers, and other professionals.
Both men were born poor, but only one of them remembered where he came from. As President, Reagan used his political power to curtail the opportunities available to the less fortunate by cutting social programs and giving tax cuts to the wealthy. Predictably, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. From his bully pulpit, Reagan preached that government was the problem, not any kind of solution, and staffed federal agencies with rabid true believers who shared this limited vision. That is, when they weren't far right-wing religious zealots like Attorney General Ed Meese, the ideological ancestor of John Ashcroft, who saw pornography and pot as the biggest threats facing America. James Watt, Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior, admitted to Congress in 1981 he didn't think there was a true need to protect the environment, because "I don't know how many future generations we can count on until the Lord returns."
It should be obvious that Ray Charles' music reached across lines to touch all Americans. He pioneered the mixing of musical genres, creating a gumbo of gospel, rhythm and blues that nearly singlehandedly spawned the sound eventually known as soul music. In the early 60's, he began recording country songs, making it clear that for Ray Charles, music knew no boundaries. And at a time when controversy could have been career ending for him, Ray Charles showed the true meaning of courage by actively supporting the civil rights movement - playing benefits, contributing his money and time.
The only time Reagan ever made an attempt to reach out to black Americans was when he invited the New York City Breakers to showcase their breakdancing moves for him and Nancy at the Lincoln Center. During Reagan's first term, this country suffered through the harshest recession in two generations. Factories closed, jobs were lost, and the safety net was slashed. But as hard as times were for whites, for black Americans, it was more like another Depression. Black voters remembered how his policies had brought pain to their communities, and rewarded Reagan with just 9% of their votes in 1984.
It is likely they also remembered the numerous symbolic steps Reagan took to exploit racism among white voters, like kicking off his 1980 Presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town infamous for the murder of three civil rights workers on June 21, 1964. While Reagan's casket was flying coast to coast last week, another memorial ceremony was coincidentally underway as a caravan of volunteers remembered the legacy of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner by embarking on a bus tour voter registration drive from New York to Mississippi, including a planned stop in Greensboro. A young congressman from Mississippi named Trent Lott was among those who urged Reagan to begin his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, and the speech Reagan gave that day called for renewed respect of "states rights," time honored code words for a return to segregation.
Above and beyond his overt support for the civil rights movement, his authorship of songs like "Hit The Road Jack" that were later adapted as freedom songs, and his personal friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., Ray Charles played a largely unrecognized role in helping end segregation forever. In the post-WWII era, black and white musicians started making music together, appearing together on stage, and borrowing from each other's musical traditions. Artists like Benny Goodman, Johnny Ray, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley paid homage to black music, while Chuck Berry, Nat Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. crossed over to whites. As musicians integrated, their audiences followed, and mixed crowds enjoying performances by mixed bands became more common. The cultural foundations of segregation were undermined, and leading the charge of this new movement in colorblind musical styles was Ray Charles.
Reagan's critics never got much mileage out of pointing out he was an actor, playing the role of the President. But today we can look back and realize Reagan's presidency was all smoke and mirrors. If, as Reagan claimed, he didn't know what Oliver North, John Poindexter and the other criminals on his National Security Council were doing while they were selling weapons to Iran and using the profits to fund an undeclared war in Nicaragua, then we see how he was truly just a figurehead. The alternative, that he was aware of Iran-Contra, and lied to the country to cover it up, would merely be more evidence of his acting skills. It's fitting that his funeral itself was meticulously staged, working from a 130-page "script" drawn up by Ronnie and Nancy in the mid-1990's, before his Alzheimer's reached the final stages.
So reflecting on the passing of these two Americans, what will be their true place in history? In the final analysis it's how they will be remembered in people's hearts and minds. Last week the national Republican Party tried hard to canonize Reagan and create a national week of mourning to rival what greeted JFK's assassination in 1963. They undoubtedly hoped a fringe benefit might be to provoke a burst of pro-Republican sentiment in the country at large and help boost George W. Bush's recently sagging poll ratings.
But the sad truth is that the crowds who turned out to honor Reagan were nearly all white, and mostly self-described Republicans to begin with. Thinking back on the two men, and what they did with their lives, it's not hard to see why in contrast, all of America mourns Ray Charles.