Spiro Agnew, Baltimore, And The Myth Of A ‘Southern Strategy’

Justin Coffey Associate Professor, Quincy University
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Spiro Agnew is in the news again. The recent riots in Baltimore have led to a spate of news articles about how Agnew, as governor of Maryland, reacted to the riots that broke out in Baltimore in April, 1968. Almost every story rehashes Agnew’s role. Following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, rioting broke out in Baltimore and the National Guard was called in. That stopped the looting, but then Agnew gathered Maryland’s civil rights leaders and denounced them for their alleged complicity in the disorder.

That speech got the attention of Richard Nixon’s campaign team and supposedly led to Nixon picking Agnew as his vice presidential candidate in 1968.

One theme that arises in almost all the stories is that Agnew used code words like “law-and order” to appeal to whites frightened by the inner-city violence that rent America’s urban areas during the late 1960s. Critics charge that Agnew and Richard Nixon employed such language as part of a “Southern Strategy” in 1968 and laid the foundation for the Republican takeover of the South.

There are, however, major problems with this historical interpretation. First, those liberals in the media and in academia arguing that the phrase “law-and-order” was implicitly racist ignore that Bobby Kennedy and other liberals were every bit as tough in their language as Spiro Agnew. By 1968, polls showed that crime had become one of leading concerns for Americans, for the very simple reason that violent crime rates exploded during the late 1960s. Politicians all across the political spectrum denounced the rioting, not just Republicans like Nixon and Agnew.

Nixon is also accused of creating a “Southern Strategy” and picking Agnew as his running mate in 1968 is supposedly part of that plan. Yet there actually is no evidence that Richard Nixon ever devised a “Southern Strategy.” No president has ever been documented as much as Nixon, but there is not one memo or any tape containing any reference to a Southern Strategy. In fact, when picking Agnew in 1968, Nixon cited Agnew’s strong civil rights record. As Baltimore County Executive in the early 1960s, Agnew fought for desegregation in the county and supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

In 1966, when Agnew ran for governor, he faced a cynical and opportunistic Democrat who ran on a platform, “Your home is your castle—protect it!” The slogan was an overly racist message designed to scare white voters. Agnew rejected that message and supported open housing legislation. He won the race and made good on his promise to sign a bill ending racial discrimination in housing. If Nixon really had a Southern Strategy he would have picked a politician who had opposed integration efforts and not Spiro Agnew.

I am writing a biography of Agnew, to be published next year. I am heartened to see him back in the news, but frustrated by how he is invariably portrayed. He was no racist and did not court a “white backlash.” Agnew has a legacy that I detail in my work, and it is not that of a politician who rose to power by exploiting racial division.

Tags : baltimore
Justin Coffey