Thursday, March 3, 2016

Hardly a Bystander

A Journalist of Heart, Mind and Courage:  
Andrew McDowd "Mac" Secrest, September 15, 1923 - April 17, 2010  

By Tom Scheft

Part 2

Mac Secrest ran The Cheraw Chronicle for fifteen years, from 1953 to 1968.  As an editor he worked to bring to his county a hospital, a technical school, and a community college. When others threatened to close the Cheraw State Park and the town library, in an effort to prevent their integration, Mac worked to keep them open.  A Neiman Fellow at Harvard University from 1960 to 1961, he also served as a racial mediator with the Justice Department's Community Relations Service.

Part I of this profile concluded with a question: What must it 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?  Mac’s children have said that their parents sheltered them from danger.

Molly, Mac’s daughter, is now a speech pathologist who works primarily with older adults in medical settings.  She is “grateful Mama and Daddy didn’t talk about it.”  Certain aspects of life couldn’t be hidden from a bright, young girl. “The threat of violence was kept from me. But the cause was not,” she explains. “There were social consequences to being a liberal white Southerner. I got called ‘nigger-lover.’ I was perplexed. I neither loved nor hated Negroes.” She couldn’t understand why her peer-tormenters were “mimicking their folks” while so clearly “on the wrong side of history.” Like her father as a child, Molly would see herself as set apart. “It was uncomfortable at times to be the conscience of the 4th grade!” she notes. “I just wanted to fit in. I went to five different schools for the first five years of school.” Looking back, Molly sees herself as having to experience “great lessons in thinking for oneself, as well as having to think about justice at an early age.” 

Molly remembers her father acting strangely one morning when she was “between four-and-a-half and six years old.  She was outside by the car, waiting to be taken to school. “Daddy wandered all over the hood area of the car, muttering to himself: ‘Did I or didn’t I?” He was uncertain – an unusual sight. I was impatient to get going. Then he shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I probably just forgot.’ We got in; he started up the car; then breathed a sigh of relief and commented: ‘Well, I guess I just forgot.’”  It was later, she remembers, “that I found out what that was all about . . . being able to tell if a bomb had been planted to go off when the engine was turned on. But I as still a kid.”  She knew about “bad guys, but only in a theatrical and theoretical sense, as in books and on TV.” However, as a child, she says, “I needed to believe that my mother and father were invincible, and believe I did. James Bond and my father kind of melded … as did the father in My Three Sons, Fred McMurray … and Andy Griffith.”

David, Mac’s son, formerly served as a political editor and reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College.  His childhood recollections echo Molly’s. “I don’t recall any dramatic family sit-down meetings to discuss such things as death threats or physical danger,” he says. “[Daddy] mainly lectured us about the dangers of lightning, brown recluse spiders, strangers offering rides, ocean undertow. He could be extremely Garp-like,” he says, alluding to the John Irving fictional character. “We somehow knew that what he did for a living involved writing his opinions on race and desegregation and that his was an unpopular stance and a minority one—no pun intended. Such realization just seemed to evolve, as if it always had been known to us, if that makes any sense.”

As with Molly, David was set apart from the other school children whose parents had taught them to hate Mac’s values. One of David’s early memories of peer aggression occurred when he was five years old and took place on the grounds of the First Presbyterian Church. “[I was] being held on the ground, with an older, larger boy sitting on my chest, with his hands around my neck, trying to choke me and calling me a ‘nigger lover.’ I assume that my mother or some adult broke up what was too one-sided to call a fight.” Later, Mac and Ann gave their explanation of what had taken place. “My parents did make it clear that the boy who was choking me was just parroting what he heard at home and acting out what his parents thought about my father’s—and really, my parents’—political views, particularly on race and the desegregation of public schools in those years after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.”

David recalls a similar bout as an eighth-grader in 1964. The fistfight happened “out behind the far bleachers, where kids were smoking and bragging and showing off. I don’t know why I went back there. I have a vague recollection that maybe I had been dared by this one student, who I think was in the 10th grade, to come back there,” he said. “I was called the same name and some other epithets, and I think the kid said things about my father. We threw some punches and pushed and shoved, and the fight was broken up, and I survived it and had held my own, I guess, and no damage was done. I was my current height of almost 6 feet, and I was on the junior varsity football and basketball teams, so it wasn’t a size mismatch, and I didn’t get jumped or anything like that.”

For David, the significance is not about those fights, but in the lack of fights he had to endure. “My main point,” he wrote, “is that such incidents were rare. We, the [Secrest] kids, were generally accepted in that town, which is a great credit to my parents’ ability to stay on good terms with people there, and also is a credit to the majority of the good people of Cheraw. The out-and-out racists and Klan supporters were in the minority.”
Despite the family’s acceptance by the majority of the Cheraw citizens, the Secrests were, nevertheless, set apart. “I’m sure that most White people in Cheraw thought my parents were strange: the liberal newspaper editor and his Yankee wife,” David explains. “[My mother] might have been considered the stranger of the two. [She] would say ‘toe-MAH-toe,’ probably on purpose, and she worked at the black public schools, including being the full-time librarian at Long High School, the all-black school, my junior and senior years.”

Was the young David aware of bullets fired on the house or his father’s fear of someone strapping a bomb to his car? Did he, his brother and sister have a sense of the threat of dire consequences to the family? “Phil, Molly and I never discussed being afraid, and I think we rarely were,” he says. “I vaguely recall it being somewhat disconcerting that Daddy would check the thread or the coin—he used both, at various times—on the car before starting it in the morning. I guess in those days, a bomb or dynamite or whatever explosive would have had to go under the hood. The clearest memory I have is of him [checking the car] during the winter, and it was cold, and we had to stand outside the car while he checked. He often had a long, gray overcoat on, with pajamas and red-checked bathrobe underneath, and untied shoes. He would go to the post office like that and go through his P.O. box and look through all these newspapers that would come in the mail, and spend hours like that. So, the general public had reason enough to think him odd.”

David recalls two occasions when bullets were fired into the living room’s large glass window. “[There was] no shattering glass, just a single hole,” he explains. “One time or the other, I don’t remember which, Daddy just left it that way. And I will say that it was somewhat disconcerting. I remember not particularly liking to be in that room after dark with the lights on, but that was probably just a period of weeks or so, maybe in the summer of 1961. And we mainly used the family room that abutted it but faced out the back of the house.”  On both occasions, the shots came when the family was not at home. “And, as time went by, Daddy would either engage in revisionist history, or maybe he was trying ease any fears he might have sensed we felt, by saying, ‘It probably was just a hunter and a stray shot. It probably wasn’t anybody shooting this way on purpose.’”

Mac and Ann’s calm approach reassured their children. “We never felt the need to worry or confront our parents about fears or potential danger,” David explains. “It was kind of accepted, and I think we realized that Daddy’s attitude was the correct one, that he and we really didn’t have much to worry about. The racists and the Klan supporters weren’t that numerous and were more cowardly than not.”

David remembers Mac’s talent for being “reasonable” had a calming effect on his critics, and his talent for persuasion was not restricted to his detractors. “[His opponents] had to deal with Daddy’s reasonableness. He was so reasonable it was maddening. And he would talk people—and his own children—into submission.”

When Mac talked to his children, especially in trying to allay their fears, David remembers him explaining things in a low-key manner. “ ‘Of course, they’re not going to do anything like that,’ [Daddy would say]. ‘They wouldn’t have the nerve. It would be stupid for them to do anything.’ And then he would go on about how anybody with any sense could see that it—whatever ‘it’ was, whether desegregating schools or allowing blacks to use the lake at the state park or not holding a public event at an all-White country club—was the right, reasonable and only thing to do, and that people understood as much. So [the Secrest children] basically had an unspoken understanding that we all agreed that what he was doing—whether it be called a higher purpose, and I think it could be called such—was the right thing to do.”

David “did have some worries” when his father worked in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana from 1964-1966 with the Community Relations Service. “Some of those places were seriously dangerous, where people were being killed,” said David. “Cheraw probably had been scarier in the 1950s than it was later, but by the early ’60s, and certainly after we moved back in August 1966, public opinion was shifting, and it was clear what the future would be and what side would win, as it did, in terms of school desegregation and the general racial atmosphere … Having said all that, however, I don’t want to minimize what I think was Daddy’s integrity and bravery in taking the stands he did, in print and in public, for all to see. He contributed greatly to such change, and to that change being peaceful. What he did was heroic. If it had been easy, he would not have been a lone editorial voice in that South Carolina wilderness.”    

How does Mac Secrest—a man with a mission, a man who is part of a mission—not only wage war but also fight so successfully? His son David mentions his ability to be calm and reassuring, his reasonableness. In his book Mac discussed his role as editor-publisher “during [the] bitter racial and sectional divide when the deep South was saying ‘Never’” (421). In reflecting on why his newspaper was able to not only survive but also thrive amidst a throng of hostile voices and actions, he describes himself as a journalist of sound, basic principles:

  •  An editor should tell people what they need to know, not just what they want to hear.
  • In setting the news agenda, an editor should not tell people what to think, but what to think about.
  • In preparing his editorial menu, an editor should provide food for thought in a palatable way that helps his readers digest it.
  • A community newspaper editor should avoid “Afghanistanism,” the practice of “viewing with alarm” and “pointing with pride” to those things far from home and ignoring problems close at hand.
  • An editor must do for his subscribers what they cannot do for themselves—gather, report, edit, and interpret news, including meetings held and business conducted behind closed doors or in executive session.
  • An editor automatically becomes part of the power structure. But he must occasionally step aside from it free to report, comment, and criticize without succumbing to pressures to conform …
  • An individual plays many roles as editor: doctor, lawyer, teacher, judge, preacher, and politician, with a mission to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” An editor must also be aware of the cult of personality. It is essential his readers support him, often by unconsciously adopting his ideas as their own. (Curses and Blessings, 423-424)           

That job description allows one to appreciate the depth of intellect, respect, and compassion Mac brought to his role. What emerges—again—is that sense of genuineness, coupled with self-awareness, confidence, and a heaping dose of savvy. While many residents in Cheraw received Mac warmly, he was also seen as the “outsider”—one who stirred up strong xenophobic feelings because of his upbringing in North Carolina and his liberal leanings. He had a realistic idea of what he was in for and the storms he would have to weather:

And while everyone seemed to be all for a free press, when their particular ox was gored, they the, of course, wanted to shoot the messenger. In the course of my tenure, I was, literally and figuratively, shot at. But as people came to appreciate the proper role of an editor, acceptance replaced suspicion, and many even grew protective of their eccentric editor, replying in effect to outside critics: "Well, he may be a son of a bitch, but at least he's our son of a bitch."

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