The new political drama Lee Daniels’ The Butler depicts President Ronald Reagan as being dismissive of apartheid in South Africa as well as civil rights regarding black Americans.
Reagan biographer Craig Shirley says such a characterization is nonsense.
Shirley, who worked on Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 presidential campaigns, says the country’s 40th president signed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday into law as well as legislation extending the Voting Rights and Fair Housing Acts.
A critical scene in the movie shows Reagan (Alan Rickman) bluntly threatening to crush sanctions against South Africa for its racist policies.
Shirley says Reagan’s position on the matter was far more intricate than the film describes, a stand that likely helped the nation emerge from its hateful policies with less bloodshed.
“South Africa was racist (apartheid) due towhite minority rule but also the only country on the African continent that was strongly anti-communist. The Soviets had a long history of world racism, anti-Semitism and anti-gay,” he says. “Reagan’s nuanced approach was called ‘Constructive Engagement’ in supporting South Africa’s anti-communism while pushing its government towards the inevitable.Few seem to realize that South Africa made the transition from white minority rule to black majority rule with a minimal loss of life, unlike, say, Rhodesia.”
Another scene late in the film finds the main character’s son (David Oyelowo) ranting over Reagan’s allegedly cruel civil rights positions.
Shirley says Reagan, in his younger years, opposed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts not due to any hate in his heart but citing Federalism. He later embraced both, the biographer says, long before he ran for president in 1980.
He adds that during Reagan’s days at Eureka College he once refused to stay at a “whites only” hotel, opting to take his two black teammates to his parents’ home “where they were warmly welcomed.” Reagan’s life story has many such tales, Shirley says.