On at least one point, Agnew was correct

I'll probably hate myself tomorrow morning for doing this -- I guess the rest of you can start right now -- but somebody has to say something good about the late Gov. Spiro Agnew. The man certainly wasn't getting much love at the University of Baltimore yesterday.

On Thursday, the University of Baltimore -- Agnew's alma mater, ironically enough -- began a three-day symposium called "Baltimore '68: Riots and Rebirth." On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn. Riots broke out nationwide. Rioters in some cities -- including Washington -- got the jump on the rest of the country and started their civil disorder soon after the news broke. Rioting in Baltimore started April 6.


On April 11, Agnew called a group of Baltimore's civil rights leaders and black elected officials to a news conference. What he said to them has become the stuff of near legend. Most of the black leaders walked out of the news conference and excoriated Agnew for his remarks.

Yesterday was no different.


Agnew was the topic of a panel discussion that focused mainly on those remarks and the reaction to them.

"Look around you," Agnew said near the beginning of his speech, "and you may notice that every one here is a leader. ... If you'll observe, the ready-mix, instantaneous type of leader is not present. The circuit-riding, Hanoi-visiting type of leader is missing from this assembly. The caterwauling, riot-inciting, burn-America-down type of leader is conspicuous by his absence. That is no accident, ladies and gentlemen. It is just good planning. All in the vernacular of today -- 'That's what it's all about, baby.'"

That may have been Agnew's first mistake: Trying to get in touch with his inner Negro while addressing a group of blacks. Before he was done, he would make others.

First, he praised those leaders who condemned activist Robert Moore for saying that the Baltimore police were "enemies of the black man." Then he condemned the leaders for, he claimed, meeting secretly with Moore and cutting a deal not to criticize him publicly.

"You ran," Agnew told the leaders, who had caught some heat for condemning Moore. "You were beguiled by the rationalizations of unity; you were intimidated by veiled threats; you were stung by insinuations that you were Mr. Charlie's boy, by epithets like 'Uncle Tom.'"

Later in his speech, Agnew called on those leaders to rebuke black "extremists" -- he mentioned Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown by name -- much as whites condemned members of the American Nazi Party and the John Birch Society.

Edward C. Papenfuse Jr., who works at the Maryland State Archives, was the panel moderator. He said there is television footage of a woman running up to Agnew to challenge him about his remarks.

"She comes up, and she's waving her finger at Agnew and she's rubbing her hat back and forth," Papenfuse said. That woman was the late, great Juanita Jackson Mitchell of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. She was probably going to tell Agnew that the NAACP had indeed been condemning black extremists and racists long before he became governor.


I asked Peter Levy, a history professor at York College of Pennsylvania who gave the symposium's plenary address, what was wrong with Agnew's exhorting black leaders to condemn the extremists among them.

"Some of them already had," Levy answered. "The NAACP had never been a big fan of the Black Power slogan." In Cambridge, Levy added, the NAACP tried to push a black woman named Daisy Bates as the moderate alternative to Gloria Richardson Dandridge, who could hardly be classified as an extremist.

Papenfuse said there exists in the Maryland State Archives a letter that Henry Offer wrote to Agnew, telling the governor line by line where he was wrong in his speech. Papenfuse asked if any in attendance remembered the name Henry Offer.

Indeed I did. I remember him as Father Henry Offer, a white Catholic priest and ardent civil rights supporter. Offer pointed out in his letter that Agnew criticized the very black leaders who put their lives on the line by taking to the streets to discourage rioters from looting and burning.

On the facts, Agnew was very wrong. But on principle, he was very right. The principles he espoused were summed up in perhaps the only parts of his speech that can't be condemned.

"I cannot believe," Agnew said, "that the only alternative to white racism is black racism. ... I publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all white racists. I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists."