Andrew Sullivan has a lengthy quote from Ronald Reagan from his debate with Robert Kennedy in 1967. Here's a short extract:
I happen to believe that the greatest part of the problem lies in the hearts of men. I think that bigotry and prejudice is probably the worst of all man's ills the hardest to correct... Now we've found it necessary to legislate, to make it more possible for government to exert its responsibility to guarantee those constitutional rights. At the same time, we have much more that can be done in the area of just human relationships. I happen to bridge a time span in which I was a radio sports announcer for major league sports in our country, in athletics, many years ago. At that time the great American game of baseball had a rulebook whose opening line was: "Baseball is a game for Caucasian gentlemen." And up until that time, up until World War II, there'd never been a Negro play in organized major league or minor league baseball in America. And one man defied that rule--a man named Branch Rickey of one of the major league teams, and today baseball is far better off and our country is far better off because he destroyed that by handpicking one man and putting him on his baseball team, and the rule disappeared. Now I don't say this is the only answer, but we must use both, and I think the people in positions like ourselves like the Senator and myself, like the President of the United States, can do a great deal of good, perhaps almost as much as proper legislation, if we take the lead in saying those who operate their businesses or their lives on a basis of practicing discrimination and prejudice are practicing what is an evil sickness. And that we would not knowingly patronize a business that did such a thing, and we urge all right-thinking people to join us and not patronize that business. Soon we will make those who live by prejudice learn that they stand alone ..."
Sullivan claims that the quote proves Reagan was not a racist. But le'ts put Reagan's words into context.
--Reagan said this 3 years after he opposed passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the law that barred segregation in public facilities and discrimination in education and hiring.
--When Reagan spoke these words, he actively opposed passage of the Open Housing Act, a measure that would bar discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. Indeed, his role in helping defeat a similar statewide measure in California in 1964 helped to launch him into politics.
--In 1980, he kicked off his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where in 1964 the local Klan killed three civil rights workers. Not only did Reagan not mention this event, he told his audience, "I believe in states' rights."
--As President, Reagan cut funding for civil rights enforcement and opposed a Martin Luther King holiday.
I don't know if Reagan was a racist in his heart, but by his actions he did little or nothing to help remove the stain of racism.
Finally, praising Branch Rickey is all well and good, but it seems to me that he might have found a way to mention Jackie Robinson--I seem to remember that he had something to do with integrating baseball.