Spiro Agnew won't get credit for forgotten civil rights victory

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Gregory Kane,Analysis,History,Civil Rights

Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore County went the way of the buffalo after Hurricane Agnes hit the area in 1973.

Ten years earlier, the amusement park was the site of a civil rights demonstration; the goal of the demonstrators was to desegregate the park, whose owners refused to admit black patrons.

Nearly 300 demonstrators were arrested. One of them was a young man named Michael "Mickey" Schwerner, a civil rights activist with the Congress of Racial Equality.

Less than a year later, Schwerner was in Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer project that was the brainchild of activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

On the night of June 21, sheriff's deputies in Neshoba County, Miss., arrested Schwerner along with Andrew Goodman, a volunteer with the Freedom Summer project from New York, and native Mississippian James Chaney.

The sheriff's deputies then turned Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney over to a mob of racists that eventually murdered them in one of the most notorious and infamous incidents of the civil rights era.

Not all of the demonstrators would meet Schwerner's tragic end. Another arrested demonstrator was the Rev. Chester Wickwire, who was then chaplain at Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University.

Wickwire was a civil rights legend in Baltimore. In addition to helping desegregate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, Wickwire brought civil rights activist Bayard Rustin to speak on the Hopkins campus.

Wickwire's gesture brought protests from, among others, the Ku Klux Klan, whose members thought that Rustin was too black, too gay, too communist or too all three to warrant his speaking at Hopkins.

Several years later, Wickwire camped out at the local headquarters of the Baltimore chapter of the Black Panther Party in what amounted to an all-night vigil. It is conceded that his presence prevented a shootout between Panthers and Baltimore police.

Perhaps some full disclosure is in order here: I met Wickwire in 1969 when I was a high school senior. I was a volunteer in the Hopkins tutorial project, which Wickwire started more than 10 years earlier.

I wasn't just friends with Wickwire; when it came time for me to be married -- which required my finding a woman crazy enough to marry me, and boy did that take some time -- I decided that there was one man, and one man only, that I wanted to perform my wedding ceremony: Chester Wickwire.

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. People like Schwerner and Wickwire will be cited as among those that should get credit for the achievement, and deservedly so.

One man I predict won't get any credit is the late Spiro T. Agnew, the former governor of Maryland and vice president of the United States under President Nixon.

Before he was elected governor in 1966, Agnew was the Baltimore County executive. He was elected to that office in 1962, one year before the demonstrations at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.

Gilbert Sandler, in a story for the Baltimore Sun written in February 1998, said that "in late August 1963, Baltimore County Executive Spiro T. Agnew persuaded the County Council to create a Human Rights Commission. One of its first acts was to open Gwynn Oak Park to all."

Agnew's detractors might point to his criticizing those who demonstrated to desegregate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, or his criticism, years later, of Baltimore civil rights leaders after riots rocked the city in 1968.

But he should get at least a modicum of credit for prodding the Baltimore County Council to create that Human Rights Commission, which eventually paved the way for the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.

Agnew was a Republican and a conservative. What do you think the odds are of his getting the credit that he deserves?

GREGORY KANE, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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