The city of Ferguson, Mo. already has a Nixon. What it may need is an Agnew.
Jay Nixon is the Democratic governor of Missouri. His largely ineffectual response to the racially charged crisis that followed the killing of an 18-year-old black man by a white police officer has invited ironic comparisons to the 37th president of the United States, who shares Nixon’s surname.
Nobody drowned in Watergate, according to the old anti-Chappaquiddick Republican slogan. But the rioting and looting in Ferguson has the potential to yield more death and destruction.
That’s where Spiro Agnew comes in. Agnew is remembered as the red-meat-throwing, scandal-tainted vice president under — wait for it — President Nixon. But in 1966 he was the pro-civil rights Republican candidate for governor of Maryland.
Agnew’s Democratic opponent George Mahoney was running on the thinly veiled anti-open housing campaign slogan “Your home is your castle!” Agnew opposed racial discrimination in housing. (RELATED: The GOP ‘Southern Strategy’ Reconsidered)
Richard Nixon grouped Mahoney with George Wallace and Lester Maddox in denouncing the Democratic Party’s segregationist wing. In a Washington Post op-ed, Nixon urged Republicans tempted to turn their backs on black Americans in the wake of backlash and race riots to let the party of “Maddox, Mahoney and Wallace” go on “to squeeze the last ounces of political juice from the rotting fruit of racial injustice.”
Agnew was one Republican who didn’t need convincing. He had in the past supported Republican backers of the civil-rights movement, like William Scranton and Nelson Rockefeller. He was identified with moderate Republicans during his stint in Baltimore County government.
But Agnew’s opposition to racial injustice did not leave him paralyzed with guilt when riots broke out while he was governor of Maryland. He sent National Guard troops and state police to quell the violence. And he was unafraid to criticize civil-rights leaders, to their faces, when he felt they did more to fan the flames than to keep the peace.
The scene was Baltimore in 1968. The city was engulfed with rioting after the murder of civil-rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. Agnew asked some 50 local black leaders to meet with him.
Agnew was angry about inflammatory remarks made by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown. He enumerated a few of them.
“We have to retaliate for the deaths of our leaders,” said Carmichael. “The execution for those deaths will not be in the court rooms. They’re going to be in the streets of the United States of America.”
“Get yourselves some guns,” Brown said. “The honky is your enemy.” And of course, Carmichael remarked, “To hell with the laws of the United States,” adding, “if a white man tries to walk over you, kill him.”
“It is deplorable and a sign of sickness in our society that the lunatic fringes of the black and white communities speak with wide publicity while we, the moderates, remain continuously mute,” Agnew thundered. “I cannot believe that the only alternative to white racism is black racism.”
Agnew worried that black militancy and white racism would prove mutually reinforcing. He said the “overwhelming majority” of black Maryland residents were “responsible, hard-working, decent people who are as horrified by the events of the past days as you or I,” yet would end up being the very “people who will be unjustly victimized by a hardening of attitudes in the responsible, decent white community.”
“I publicly repudiate, condemn, and reject all white racists,” Agnew proclaimed. ” I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists. This, so far, you have not been willing to do.”
What elected official, much less a Republican, would speak like this today? Would such words not be regarded in contemporary parlance as “whitesplaining?”
In fact, many black community leaders walked out of Agnew’s speech at the time. Liberal Baltimore journalist Jules Witcover called it an “insulting sermon.” The address made Agnew “the darling of the Strom Thurmond set,” according to one of his Republican predecessors, words that were again quoted upon Agnew’s death thirty years later.
The truth is Agnew was a proponent of both law and order and civil rights. He opposed both racism and rioting. The Nixon administration he went on to join integrated more Southern schools than Lyndon Johnson and helped marginalize open segregationists as national political figures.
Barack Obama and even Al Sharpton have straightforwardly described the violence in Ferguson as futile and counterproductive. “Burn this bitch down” has been condemned as much as “burn, baby, burn.”
Local officials who have acquitted themselves as well as Agnew did decades ago, however, are harder to find.
W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.