Channeling Spiro Agnew in the Baltimore riots

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Name a newly elected Republican governor of Maryland with little previous political experience that hailed from the suburbs and had to deal with racial unrest and rioting in the city during his first term. Maryland's current Gov. Larry Hogan? Guess again. How about future Vice President Spiro Agnew.

As the situation in Baltimore unfolded over the past week, it brought back memories of the violence that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968. Maryland's then relatively unknown Republican Governor, Spiro Agnew, had just started his second year in office. His reaction to the unfolding situation helped make him a household name and led to a reshaping of American electoral politics.


Agnew quickly called out the National Guard and then pointed fingers at Baltimore's mayor, Tommy D'Alessandro, and his staff, accusing them of willfully ignoring signs of impending violence in the city. A D'Alessandro assistant told Theo Lippmann of The Baltimore Sun, "Agnew told us he didn't think Martin Luther King was a good American, anyway!"

Agnew saved his real public vitriol, however, for Baltimore's black political leadership. Calling them to a special meeting at the state office building in Baltimore, he excoriated the group for its failure to take responsibility for the violence and a "perverted concept of race loyalty." Governor Agnew charged the group with cowardice by meeting in secret with Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, both advocates of violence in the civil rights movement by 1968.


To catcalls from the audience ("If you want to talk to us as ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Governor, we'll stay and listen") and a partial walkout, Agnew continued to belittle and upbraid the leaders, characterizing them as silent bystanders while Baltimore went up in smoke. Agnew charged, "It is deplorable and a sign of sickness in our society that the lunatic fringes of our black and white communities speak with wide publicity while we, the moderates, remain continuously mute. I cannot believe that the only alternative to white racism is black racism."

The immediate response from the black leadership was overwhelmingly negative. A group statement pronounced, "We are shocked by the gall of the governor." State Senator Verda Welcome said, "he talked to us like we were children." Reverend Marion Bascom commented, "he's as sick as any bigot in America." Mayor D'Alessandro called the speech "inflammatory."

But the response to Agnew's speech around the nation was different. Calls of support to Agnew's office in Annapolis poured in from around the country, and Republicans took note. Maryland's previous Republican Governor, Theodore McKeldin, who had also served as Baltimore's Mayor later said, "that speech made him the darling of the Strom Thurmond set." But perhaps more importantly for Agnew's own political career, Pat Buchanan, then an eager, young staff aide to presidential candidate Richard Nixon, clipped the text of the speech and saved it for his boss. By May, The Washington Post put Agnew, then just eight years removed from finishing fifth in a five-way race for Baltimore County Circuit Court Judge, as a legitimate VP contender. Three months later Richard Nixon named Spiro Agnew his running mate.

Agnew's handling of the Baltimore riots brought him on to the national stage and helped define political buzzwords like: "law and order," "Southern strategy" and "silent majority" to the body politic. And before his ignominious end, resigning in 1973 after pleading no contest to tax evasion from bribes, Agnew helped orient an important part of the Republican Party on a trajectory that leads directly to 2015.

Even though Governor Hogan, after a rocky start, forged what appears to be a good working relationship with Baltimore's Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, national Republicans channeled Agnew. Ben Carson, a long shot, but with strong ties to Baltimore, denounced the "irresponsible individuals" and "uncontrolled agitators." Rand Paul joked about being afraid to get off the Amtrak as it went through Baltimore. And Jeb Bush, while demanding justice, emphasized "a commitment to the rule of law." Rudy Giuliani, not running for President in 2016, pointed out that Maryland has been largely run by Democrats over the past four decades and that if he had been mayor, "The first person to throw a rock would have gotten arrested" because "you don't get to riot in my city."

Spiro Agnew laid down his version of the law in 1968 and helped drive a wedge between Democrats and suburban white voters, ultimately realigning American electoral politics. He opened the door to a successful national Republican Party voting coalition that married white southerners and northern suburbanites. Along the way, this coalition defeated liberal Democratic standard bearers like Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. Could Hillary Clinton be next on the list?

Charles J. Holden is a Professor of History at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Zach Messitte is the President of Ripon College in Wisconsin Jerald Podair is a Professor of History at Lawrence University also in Wisconsin. They are writing a book on Spiro Agnew and the Republican Party.