During the 2008 presidential election, both members of the Republican ticket, John McCain Sarah Palin, said that they were advocates of “states’ rights.” This was not terribly surprising, considering that every Republican elected to the White House for the past 30 years has extolled the virtues of states’ rights at one point or another.
But what many don’t know– or have forgotten– is that the term “states’ rights” actually has a sinister and deeply racist origin.
During the Civil Rights Movement, conservative governor George Wallace proudly declared his support for “Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” but later said he wished that he had declared his support of the more subtle “States’ rights now! States’ rights tomorrow! States’ rights forever!”
Similarly, former Republican National Committee Chair (and Ronald Reagan/George H. W. Bush advisor) Lee Atwater admitted in an interview that “states’ rights” was deliberately coded terminology. “You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires.”
“So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff,” Atwater continued. “You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.” Why was Atwater so blunt? At the time of the interview he was told he’d be quoted anonymously, although his identity as the source was revealed some 25 years later.
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