During the hot summer of 1967, racial disturbances swept through Detroit and Harlem and then through Minneapolis, Dayton, Cincinnati and other cities unaccustomed to civic violence. But the turning point that summer, and indeed for that era, occurred in a town few Americans knew existed.
Forty seven years ago in the small city of Cambridge, Md., H. Rap Brown crossed rhetorical swords with then Maryland’s Gov. Spiro T. Agnew. The two put the convulsive actions of that summer into words in ways that deepened the nation’s racial divide. They popularized a style of political speech that would increase black / white antagonism and drew millions of White Southern Democrats into the Republican Party.
Maryland’s Mississippi Freedom Riders from Swarthmore College came to the Eastern Shore to help the fledgling Cambridge Nonviolent Action Committee push open the city’s segregated restaurants and the chief source of entertainment, the local movie theater. At this time, the Eastern Shore of Maryland was a lot like growing up in Mississippi.
This fertile hook of Maryland that extends into the Chesapeake has always been isolated and heavily agricultural, with a profoundly different character from the rest of the state. While Maryland sided with Union forces during the Civil War, the Eastern Shore was a slave region and sympathized with the South. Harriet Tubman was born and was a slave on a farm outside the city limits of Cambridge before escaping and starting the Underground Railroad.
Frederic Douglas was also born a slave in this same geographical area.
The attitude in this area as late as 1973 still had the “Black Only” and “White Only” signs on the bathrooms and water fountains and people still obeyed them!
That summer in 1967 young, black Cambridge school students joined the Freedom Riders movement, and when some sat down to pray in the restricted lobby of the town’s segregated movie theater; they were arrested and sentenced by a local judge to up to six years in a juvenile reformatory. When state authorities released these youths after three months, they returned home heroes in their communities.
In the following years, civil rights efforts in Cambridge sagged as key activists left and the Freedom Riders ceased their visits. To build support in 1967, the members of the recently organized Black Action Federation invited the new head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, H. Rap Brown, to speak.
This was the summer that H. Rap Brown gave an impassioned speech on civil rights in the town of Cambridge, Maryland which resulted in a riot. As a result Brown found himself on the FBI’s top ten list of most wanted.
“If America don’t come around, we’re going to burn it down,” shouted Brown, standing on the trunk of a car, to a crowd of 500 cheering Cambridge supporters. His speech occurred an hour before police exchanged gunfire with residents and several hours before a blaze engulfed a black elementary school and most of the city’s black-owned businesses.
The National Guard was called in along with local and state police to restore law and order.
The day after the fire, Governor Agnew inspected the Eastern Shore city and scratched out a statement. “It shall now be the policy of this state to immediately arrest any person inciting to riot, and to not allow that person to finish his vicious speech.” Through their uncompromising rhetoric, Agnew and Brown climbed instantly from obscurity to icon status and would rise unexpectedly to positions of national importance, swept along in historical currents beyond their control. Their words split the pro-civil rights coalition, and inspired the “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party.
This then led to an unprecedented federal counterintelligence campaign against black political moderates. When Brown came to Cambridge July 24, he was at a point of believing that armed self-defense was necessary. Blacks had battled bitterly with police in Prattsville, Ala., Detroit and other cities already that summer. According to police, Brown led a group of marchers to Race Street, the main commercial street of the city, which divided the black and white neighborhoods. Brown said later that he was simply escorting a girl home. As he approached Race Street, a buckshot pellet struck Brown in the side of the face. He was treated at the home of Cambridge’s only black doctor and left town shortly thereafter.
Within hours of the shooting, however, the elementary school in the heart of black Cambridge was in flames. Citing the threat of snipers, the local fire department refused to fight the fire despite pleas from black community leaders. Flying embers spread the blaze to 16 adjacent buildings and the sky over Cambridge was bright with fire.
Despite a lack of evidence that Brown himself had participated in the burning of buildings in Cambridge, he was charged with arson and the FBI entered the case. Before being released on bond, he issued a statement declaring that America stood “on the eve of a black revolution.”
The summer of 1967 revealed the power of black people to get national attention through unfocused expressions of rage. The summer also revealed that a year of talk about black power had left SNCC militants more powerless than ever.
Congress passed anti-riot measures in deliberations that revealed the increasing ability of conservative politicians to strengthen their popular support at the expense of liberals over the issue of black militancy. Agnew’s response to Cambridge set the pattern for his future political career. The man elected governor as a moderate began a national ascendancy using the political instincts and style of George Wallace’s speech writer, “Asa Carter”.
When the city of Baltimore rioted in 1968, in the aftermath of the assassination of King, Agnew asked 50 black leaders to meet with him. Most walked out as he immediately asked them to denounce inflammatory remarks from Carmichael and Brown. The meeting was a disaster and Agnew’s relations with black leaders were nearly destroyed.
Agnew’s calculated tough talk earned him time on the national news and caught the attention of a young aide to Richard Nixon named Patrick Buchanan, who kept newspaper clips of Agnew to show to his boss, who eventually selected Agnew as his running mate in 1968.
As a vice presidential candidate and as vice president, Agnew delighted supportive crowds denouncing “thieves, traitors and perverts,” and “radical liberals.” He became the leader in the Republican effort to woo white Southern and blue-collar voters who had traditionally voted Democratic.
Today Agnew’s legacy lives on. Republicans have picked up conservative white votes and become the dominant party among white men in the South.
So in conclusion, the South today that is now the “Reactionary Conservative Republican” strong hold all comes around to the same old variable of 150 plus years ago….”Racism!”