"A Closet Racist and Friend of the Rich": Reagan's Response to a Citizen Critic

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
May 9 2013 2:15 PM

"A Closet Racist and Friend of the Rich": Reagan's Response to a Citizen Critic

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This telegram, sent to Ronald Reagan from Leonard C. Kirk in March 1983, contains a draft response written in Reagan’s hand. The sheet of paper goes up for sale through Swann Auction Galleries on May 23.

Update, May 21, 2013: After being alerted to the fact that the sale of this document would conflict with the Presidential Records Act, which requires that official presidential correspondence be collected by the National Archives, Swann Galleries stated in a press release that it would pull this item from its auction. The letter will be routed to the National Archives and Records Administration for processing, and will eventually be deposited at the Reagan Library.

Advertisement

In his message, Kirk states his approval of Reagan’s defense policy before going on to identify himself as a “black unemployed Viet Nam veteran who considers you a worse president than Tricky Dick Nixon.” Kirk tells Reagan that he believes him to be a “closet racist and a friend of the rich.”

According to one biographer, Reagan began the practice of replying to selected citizens’ letters when he was the governor of California (1967-1975). While he was president, an aide would select a sampling of communications to represent larger trends in public opinion, and deliver a batch of 20 to 30 letters every few weeks.

Although, as president, Reagan initially used a Dictaphone to draft answers, he eventually transitioned to writing replies longhand (generally, though not in this case, on a yellow legal pad). A secretary would then transcribe the rough material into a sendable copy.

In this response to Kirk, Reagan, clearly stung by the criticism, runs through a number of defenses. He blames black organizations for propagandizing about his record on race, informing Kirk that he’s been fed lies by the people he trusts. The president then points to past evidence of his commitment to civil rights, including his advocacy of inclusionary policies in baseball during an early stint as a sports broadcaster, and his appointment record while governor of California.

Reagan doesn’t respond to Kirk’s accusation that he was a “friend of the rich” until the very end. As his kicker, Reagan offers a biographical answer to what was implicitly a critique of policy: “I was raised in poverty.”

A transcript of Reagan's reply follows the image.

ReaganTelegramFinal

From the files of Reagan's Special Assistant to the President and Director of Correspondence, Anne V. Higgins. Image courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

Transcript:

Dear Mr Kirk

I appreciate very much your support of my defense policy. I believe I also can understand why you think me a “closet racist.” Certainly there has been a constant drumbeat of propaganda to that effect ever since I took office. Some leaders of Black organizations have joined in this whether to enhance their own stature by arousing the membership to anger or not I don’t know.

You of course would have no way of knowing the truth about me. May I point out a few things on my own behalf?

I was raised from childhood by parents who believed bigotry & prejudice were the worst things a person could be guilty of. My father once slept in his car during an Illinois blizzard rather than stay in a hotel that wouldn’t allow Jews. He was Irish Catholic.

As a Sports announcer broadcasting Big League baseball in the middle ‘30s I campaigned against the rule that prohibited Blacks from playing in organized ball. As Gov. of Calif. I appointed more Blacks to executive and policy making positions than all the previous Gov’s [sic] of Calif. put together. I too have a dream, a dream that one day whatever is done to or for someone will be done neither because of or in spite of their race. We are equal in the sight of God – we should be equal in the sight of man. By the way I was raised in poverty.

Sincerely R.R.