September 15, 1923 - April 27, 2010
An Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement
By Tom Scheft
As the “voice” of his newspaper, as the conscience of his community, his state, his country, and even the world, as a federal mediator for civil rights, Mac Secrest chose roles that—literally and figuratively—set him apart.
When you meet someone initially and know little about him or her, you can’t possibly speculate on how important this person may be to you, how much of an influence he or she may have on you. So it was with Mac Secrest for me. It was 1977. All I knew was that he had joined the English faculty at North Carolina Central University. He had been the editor and owner of a small weekly newspaper in South Carolina, and he was heading up the new Media-Journalism Program. He was going to train volunteer faculty to be journalism teachers, whether they had any newspaper experience or not. I was one of the volunteers.
When he entered the room to address his faculty recruits, he sported an engaging smile. He was tall and trim, was dressed in blazer and tie, and sported a well-groomed head of sandy-colored, gracefully graying hair. I said, “Hi, Dr. Secrest,” and he immediately replied, “It’s Mac. Call me Mac.” Clearly, in those brief seconds I experienced a positive feeling about the man—a genuineness that would be confirmed again and again and again throughout our years of work and friendship.
As he talked to us about his plans for the program, I felt at ease. I am, at heart, what I call a “healthy skeptic,” but in a matter of minutes I watched him begin to win the trust of his colleagues. He was, first and foremost, an astonishing conversationalist—juxtaposing seriousness and insightful examples with witticisms, erudite quotations (sometimes rendered in French), and even contemporary slang. His conversational panache was impressive.
I remained amazed by—but cautious of—his cheerful openness and intellect. I was guarded, because here was my new “boss.” Like many people, I had learned that no matter how nice bosses may be in the beginning, eventually many feel the need to “show you who’s boss.” Inevitably, underlings need to be put in their place. With Mac, that day never came.
While he was the director of the program, Mac made it clear that we were colleagues, and he valued our expertise. He explained he had sold his newspaper because he wanted no part in journalism’s move to computerization, and he promptly put Tom Evans and me in charge of developing the new electronic newsroom that was to be the hands-on, production part of the program. Evans and I relished that immediate trust and responsibility.
Evans was certainly deserving of trust. He was a seasoned English teacher equipped with full professorial beard and a quick, bright mind. But me? I cast a different impression—a short, stocky sort with wild, longish hair. I looked like a product of the ’60s, which I was. This “look” was (and continues to be) off-putting for many folks. However, Mac gave off no initial sense of reservation. Nor did he ever.
This acceptance was no accident. I would come to learn that he was—indeed—a man who gave everyone the benefit of the doubt, preferring to judge people, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advised, based on the content of their character. Years later in 2004, when reading Mac’s autobiography, I would be reminded—again and again—that Mac was someone who believed in people and did not impulsively judge books by their covers.
One example of this is Jim Crawford, who worked for Mac at his newspaper, The Cheraw Chronicle. In the 1950s, Crawford, a Black man and a linotype operator, had come down with tuberculosis and undergone medical treatment before moving to Cheraw and attempting to find a job. In his book Mac says matter-of-factly that he was “in great need” of a linotype operator, but that simple statement is followed by a quote from one of Crawford’s friends:
Crawford had to face a double stigma in the workplace. He ease a recovered tubercular patient, which scared a lot of people, and he was a black man. In the 1950s newspapers publishers in South Carolina didn’t hire black linotype operators. But Secrest didn’t pay any attention to stigmas. Jim had a health certificate. He was proficient in his trade. Race didn’t matter. He hired Jim, paid him the prevailing wage, and just saved his life.
I don’t remember when I first learned that Mac had been a significant person in the America’s battle for civil rights. I had no idea he had been a crusading journalist—a successful one, whose editorials were reprinted in newspapers across the nation, including The Washington Post and The New York Times; no idea he’d taken on the Ku Klux Klan; no idea he had written award-winning editorials—such as the 1958 Sidney Hillman Award for best editorial on civil rights and racial issues and his 1967 denouncing of Sen. Strom Thurmond, “A Profile in Extremism”; no idea he had strategized with Andrew Young and Dr. King; and no idea he’d been a racial mediator for the government’s Community Relations Service, which included his being stationed in Selma, Alabama in 1965 in the midst of its historic turmoil, and also serving from 1964-1966 in Mississippi, Florida, Louisiana, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Mac never initiated talk about his work with the Civil Rights Movement, but things would pop up. The first time I remember that occurring was when a group of faculty was sitting around and someone mentioned comedian/activist Dick Gregory. I noted that his autobiography had a huge impact on me when I was 13 years old. Mac followed with: “I helped integrate a Holiday Inn with him one night during the ’60s.” He said it as though he were announcing the time of day.
I sat up straight and exclaimed: “You know Dick Gregory? You did what with him?”
Mac nodded. “We helped integrate the first Holiday Inn in Alabama. Interesting man. That was quite a while ago.”
On another occasion a group of faculty and students had informally gathered in the English Department newsroom. The conversation turned to the Ku Klux Klan, since we were preparing to bring the director of Klanwatch, a program sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center, to speak at NCCU. The discussion focused on the ruthlessness and intimidating practices of the Klan. One of my students, an older woman, had lived in a town with a significant Klan presence, and she talked about her childhood and having to routinely hide under her bed on the weekends when drunken Klansmen would ride into the Black section of town and fire bullets into homes.
Mac spoke up: “As an editor, I had to deal with the Klan a number of times.”
The room got very quiet.
I remember stammering, “You took on the Klan?”
“Yes. Quite a bit.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Well, I wrote editorials against their ideas and the things they did.” He paused briefly. “One time I actually covered one of their meetings.” He explained that he had “self-invited” himself to cover a Klan function—just walked up on the platform “in a barren, wind-swept cotton field one winter night two miles across the Pee Dee River into Marlboro County.” He “recorded the proceedings,” which included a “harangue of me, The Chronicle, and ‘wishy-washy’ local civic leaders.”
We sat there spellbound. Then he smiled. “One time … I stacked wood for a bonfire in front of my house. I stood beside it holding an unlit match. We took a picture and ran it on the front page of The Chronicle. Underneath the picture I ran a caption that told the Klan I’d already assembled the bonfire. I’d already done their work for them. I even had a match for them. I offered them an open invitation. All they needed to do was light the bonfire during the day in their robes but without their hoods on.”
He paused and I stammered again, “What happened?”
“Nothing … I knew they wouldn’t do it. I was just calling their bluff.”
“Weren’t you scared?” I was frightened just thinking about it.
Mac thought for a moment. “No,” he said, slowly shaking his head. Then he grinned. “I guess I was just young enough and dumb enough not to be scared.”
Many years later I would ask Mac’s wife, Ann, about the bonfire story. “Weren’t you scared?” I said. Ann stood there, her mouth in Mona-Lisa-mode. She shrugged her shoulders. She didn’t respond.
Little by little I would pull out bits and pieces from Mac’s history as an activist. He would render things calmly without much elaboration, and I would relentlessly prod him: “Then what happened?” … “How did you feel?” … “Were you scared?”
Here’s my point: It’s one thing to “do the right thing” in a difficult situation. It’s quite another to do it when your life may be at stake.
Mac Secrest could have easily made his contribution safely. Born into a life of privilege, Mac could have restricted his focus to that of his family and friends. Why risk one’s life? And yet, he chose a community and took on a role at a time and place in which many of his “critics” had no reservation in taking the law into their own hands:
As the crisis deepened through the years 1956-1964, I occasionally received unsigned hate mail and anonymous telephone calls. Signs reading “For Sale” and “Moving Out” appeared in the front yard. Occasionally pellets peppered our living room picture window. The threats, plus ample evidence of violence against people and property elsewhere, prompted me to take certain precautions. I’d place a penny on the window of my car or tie a thread from hood to bumper. If the penny had dropped or the thread was broken, I’d check to make sure I hadn’t been booby-trapped.
For those unaware of the tumultuous zeitgeist of Southern racial politics during that period, Mac notes that many of his enemies had very different methods of redress for people, like him, who used the pen rather than the sword. In 1957, he was one of the writers who contributed to a book of essays, South Carolinians Speak: A Moderate Approach to Race Relations. In discussing that book in his memoir, Mac’s tone appears sobering and haunting:
Public reaction [to the book] was mixed. One contributor’s house was fire-bombed. Another was intimidated into recantation. Some withdrew into silence. Others, including me, just hung in there. So my concern about car bombs and booby traps was not entirely misplaced.
Imagine what it must be like to live with the daily possibility that you or your family could face death. Why not simply avoid that by moving … anywhere out of the line of fire, away from the threat? How do you not do that?
Next Issue: In Part Two, Mac’s children, David and Molly, talk about growing up in Cheraw, S.C., and discuss being members of a family set apart. The character and personality of Mac Secrest is further explored.
Secrest, Andrew McDowd. (2004). Curses and Blessings: Life and Evolution in the 20th Century South. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House.