A few days after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the Republican governor of Maryland, Spiro T. Agnew, strode into a conference room in downtown Baltimore. In the hours after King’s death, violence had broken out in the city; along with Washington and Chicago, it was soon occupied by the United States Army. In response, Agnew called together the black community on April 11 for “a frank and far-reaching discussion.”
It wasn’t a discussion. It was a trap. The governor tore into the crowd for standing by while rioters ransacked stores and set cars on fire. They claimed to speak for racial harmony, he boomed, but when the violence began, “You ran.”
Within minutes, most of the audience members had stormed out; at the door, they found a scrum of reporters, whom Agnew had tipped off. Within hours, Agnew’s confrontation was national news; within days, this once-obscure first-time governor was being assailed as a racist by the left and hailed as a rising star in the Republican Party. That summer, Richard Nixon picked him as his running mate.
.. Fifty years later, we remember Spiro Agnew, if at all, as a bumbling vice president who later pleaded no contest to tax evasion, resigned in disgrace and ended his career funneling military surplus to Saddam Hussein and Nicolae Ceausescu. But his rise during the spring of 1968 is instructive because suddenly it feels so familiar: a white Republican who claimed to speak against radicalism and for the forgotten man, but in fact ran on exacerbating racial animosity. Far from a bit player, Agnew marked a watershed moment in American history, when the Republican Party committed itself to the shift from being the party of Lincoln to the party of white racial backlash.
.. By the late 1960s, the Republicans were in a bind. Black voters, once loyal to the party, had fled to the Democrats, who had largely shed their Southern, racist faction in favor of civil rights liberalism. Racial conservatives in the South and working-class districts in the North were there for the picking, but aligning with outright racists like George Wallace was a dead end
.. The answer, party strategists realized, lay in the thorny questions raised by the civil rights revolution. It was easy for most whites to get behind ending Jim Crow in the South; it was harder for them to accept fair housing legislation or school busing, things that touched suburban
.. Opportunistic Republicans pounced.
.. Early on, Agnew positioned himself as a racial liberal — he won the governor’s office in 1966 by running to the left on civil rights against George P. Mahoney, a pro-segregation Democrat. But his mood soon turned. He became obsessed with black “agitators”; he had state law enforcement spy on civil rights activists
.. Like many conservatives in both parties, Agnew was convinced that the wave of rioting in the late 1960s wasn’t the expression of black frustration over urban unemployment, discrimination and police brutality, but was the result of a conspiracy by black leaders. “The looting and rioting which has engulfed our city during the past several days did not occur by chance,” he told his audience that day in Baltimore.
.. Nixon moved further to the right that spring and summer, abandoning his previous sympathy for urban blacks and adopting a fierce law-and-order stance.
.. Nixon’s campaign that fall was built on what would be called the Southern strategy, but as the historian Kevin Kruse has noted, it was really a suburban strategy.
.. he deployed a range of more subtle instruments — antibusing, anti-open housing — to appeal to the tens of millions of white suburbanites who imagined themselves to be racially innocent, yet quietly held many of the same prejudices about the “inner city” and “black radicals” that their parents had held about King and other civil rights activists.
.. Though he beat Hubert Humphrey by just 0.7 percentage points, Nixon dominated the suburbs
.. He heralded a new kind of virulent racial politics in America, one that pretends to moderation and equality but feeds on division and prejudice — one that, 50 years later, we are still unable to move beyond.