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 - indeed for that era - occurred in a town few Americans
Thirty years ago last week, in the small city of Cambridge, Md., H. Rap Brown crossed rhetorical swords with Maryland's Gov. Spiro 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 draw millions of white Democrats into the Republican Party.
"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.
Violence, Brown would later explain, "is as American as cherry pie."
The day after the fire, 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." Agnew had been known as a moderate, but from this day forward he lashed out against civil libertarians. He refused to meet with black leaders unless they first "shun lawlessness," specifically denouncing Brown and other black power advocates.
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.
Of course, there were black militants who preceded Brown, and there were tough-talking governors before Agnew. But the rhetoric both men employed 30 years ago grabbed the national consciousness, inaugurating a new politics of racial polarization by ambitious black activists on the one hand and white law-and-order politicians on the other.
Their words split the pro-civil rights coalition, inspired the Southern Strategy of the Republican Party and led to an unprecedented federal counterintelligence campaign against black political moderates.
Just three years before the Cambridge riots, Americans had elected President Lyndon Johnson by a wide margin. It would be the last election up to the present in which a majority of whites and blacks would vote for the same candidate.
Ironically, both Brown and Agnew were elected to their positions as moderates, not firebrands. Brown's appointment as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was intended to soften the organization's image following Stokely Carmichael's tumultuous leadership.
Agnew was elected governor with considerable black and liberal support. He was viewed as a moderate, clearly preferable among black voters to his opponent, a conservative Democrat known for opposition to open housing laws.
Watching these events 30 years ago in Cambridge was a slender teenager who had dedicated his young life to the cause of civil rights.
Dwight Cromwell joined the civil rights movement at age 13 when, in 1961, Freedom Riders from Swarthmore College came to his hometown 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.
As Cromwell describes it, growing up black in 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.
"From the '60s to the '90s we made some progress, but it was only after applying pressure," Cromwell said, noting that the local volunteer fire department admitted blacks in 1986 only after the Justice Department intervened. Even then, the tight white leadership of Cambridge complained about outsiders pushing them to change.
Cromwell was one of the youngest but most eager Cambridge residents to join the Freedom Riders. When he and a high school friend 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 him after three months, he returned home a hero. 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, Cromwell and other members of the recently organized Black Action Federation invited the new head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to speak.
H. Rap Brown had been in Cambridge before, as an organizer in the mid-1960s. He earned the nickname "Rap" because of his ability to talk easily with poor black people.
In 1967, just after his election to lead SNCC, Brown said at a San Francisco news conference that black people had a right to defend themselves. But he added that "if black people are organized, they can seize power politically. At this point we are against the use of arms."
This moderate approach was just what SNCC leaders had in mind when they elected the 23-year-old Brown to succeed Carmichael, whose fiery leadership had alienated many SNCC supporters. In quieter times, Brown might have avoided major controversy, but the year that he assumed the SNCC chair was one of exceptional social turmoil.
When he 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.
Brown's speech atop the car outside the federation's headquarters 30 years ago repeated the themes of racial pride and assertiveness that were characteristic of Carmichael's speeches, but Brown went further in urging listeners to take up arms against white society.
"Don't be trying to love that honky to death," he proclaimed. "Shoot him to death. Shoot him to death, brother, because that's what he is out to do to you. Do to him like he would do to you, but do it to him first." Later, he talked about how slowly Cambridge had changed. "If this town don't come around, this town should be burned down. "
Cromwell was nearby as Brown spoke that night.
"I listened and said, 'Well, that part is just to play on people's emotions.' I went on and applauded, everyone else was applauding . . . and I thought that was it."
It was not it. While there was no violence during Brown's speech, about an hour afterward shots were exchanged between black residents and police. 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 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.
"It was terrible," recalls Cromwell. "To see building after building burning, and not be able to do anything."
Enter Spiro Agnew
At dawn, with Cambridge's black business district a smoldering rubble, Agnew left his vacation home in nearby Ocean City, Md., to tour the destruction.
Agnew had been known for sensitivity to black concerns. But when he toured the damaged neighborhood the next day his attention was on apprehending Brown. "I hope they pick him up soon, put him away and throw away the key," Agnew remarked.
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 black masses were "fighting the enemy tit for tat" and "neither imprisonment nor threats of death would deter him." At a Washington, D.C., news conference the following day he called President Lyndon Johnson a "white honky cracker, an outlaw from Texas."
Within days, more charges were filed against Brown. Rather than building a strong black revolutionary force capable of overthrowing the established social order, Brown became an issue in the struggle between liberal and conservative factions of that order. He became a symbol for millions of white people prepared to support repressive policies against high-visibility black militants.
End of a civil rights era
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.
In Washington, the government's actions against Brown established a pattern for the suppression of highly publicized radical leaders. In August, a month after the Cambridge riot, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Mississippi Democrat and plantation owner James Eastland, focused on the riots - with witness after witness, including the chief of the Cambridge police department, blaming Brown.
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.
The most ominous news for civil rights organizations occurred off of Capitol Hill.
J. Edgar Hoover spoke before the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to condemn Carmichael, Brown and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as "vociferous firebrands," ordering his subordinates to include SNCC militants and member of other organizations on a "Rabble Rouser Index."
For the next several years, Hoover emphasized concerns about Communist infiltration of civil rights organizations. Despite a paucity of evidence, these organizations were subject to Hoover's Cointelpro operation.
On Aug. 25, Hoover ordered FBI field offices to begin a new effort to "expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder." Among the groups targeted for "intensified attention" were the Nation of Islam, Congress of Racial Equality, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
The FBI goal was not only to stop violence but to prevent these organizations "from gaining respectability" by discrediting them in the respectable Negro community. . . . the white community . . . and in the eyes of Negro radicals, the followers of the movement."
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.
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.
"What possible hope is there for peace in our community if these apostles of anarchy are allowed to spew hatred unchallenged? . . . I call upon you to publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all black racists. This, so far, you have not been willing to do."
The meeting was a disaster and Agnew's relations with black leaders were nearly destroyed. But 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 a leader in the Republican effort to woo white Southern and blue-collar voters who had traditionally voted Democratic.
Agnew resigned the vice presidency in 1973 because, while advocating law and order, it turned out that he had accepted kickbacks from contractors. He died last year.
But Agnew's legacy lives on. Republicans have picked up conservative white votes and become the dominant party in the South and among white men.
Rap Brown lives in Atlanta, where he runs a grocery store. He has taken the Muslim name Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin and is an active spiritual leader.
Cromwell still lives in Cambridge. He is graying and holds two jobs, one of them as a reporter for a local radio station covering the institutions and public entities that once barred his entry from movie theaters and restaurants.
Today he walks through his historic home town waving to black and white friends. The downtown movie theater closed years ago. Black people can attend movie theaters at the shopping mall, and go into any restaurant on the Eastern Shore.
Gunfire is only occasionally heard in Cambridge today, usually the shots of warring crack dealers. Cromwell wishes sometimes the police would direct the energy they deployed against civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s against drug peddlers today.
As he passes a group of black teenagers in his old neighborhood, he sighs and says, "They don't know what we did."
Tribune, 28 July 1997.