By Tom Scheft
Mac’s wring style was at once that of teacher, preacher, iconoclast, activist, and historian. In a May 13, 1954 Cheraw Chronicle editorial, “A Time for Courage, Responsibility,” Mac discussed the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to ban segregation in the public schools. He spoke to people in the South, noting that their reaction would be scrutinized not only by other American citizens but also by people throughout the world. The Court’s decision, he explained, not only affirmed “the free world’s fight against totalitarianism” but also sends an important message on how it was to be done:
The democratic way of life is based on a concept of justice arrived at by due process of law. The end of segregation, with all the social realignment and readjustment which it implies, comes about in an orderly, legal, constitutional manner, in contrast to revolution and upheaval which characterizes less mature and less stable societies.
Mac urged a united acceptance of the decision, asking citizens to assume “a moral, if not legal, obligation to resist the temptation to go into temporizing subterfuge, such as abolishing the public school system and leasing the schools to churches or private organizations.” This theme of one’s moral responsibility to follow just laws, while not abiding unjust laws, would be a central message years later in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
In contrast to many of today’s political pundits, there was no gloating in Mac’s editorial. He was well aware that the court’s decision, while creating an end, also signified a beginning with much work to be done. As such, he reached out to the decision’s critics:
As painful and as shocking as the Supreme Court ruling may initially seem, it may well prove to be the final act that removes the last remaining major differences which have separated the South from the rest of the nation for over 90 years.
Rather than dismissing the philosophy of his adversaries, he defended the “vital and dynamic function” of states’ rights; he called for their preservation, but he issued this warning:
[W]hen states rights sentiment becomes stronger than was originally intended and when it becomes so forceful as to threaten to become a “separtist” movement, endangering our nation and our constitution, then it becomes subverted, misused, and abused.
He concluded the piece by restating his opening appeal to all Southern citizens:
Southern Whites and Southern Negroes have a history of mutual respect, confidence and affection. Those noble sentiments will survive the trials of educational integration, and we will show the nation that we are still capable of national leadership and moral responsibility, even when we feel that some sacrifice is required on our part.
Of course the battle for school integration would rage on. In a 1962 Chronicle editorial, Mac took on Ross Barnett, the governor of Mississippi from 1960-1964, and the critics of integration on the college level who were protesting James Meredith’s attempt to become the first Black student admitted to the University of Mississippi. Mac presented both sides of the argument in a clear, straightforward manner. He inserted his knowledge of history to both inform the reader and dismantle his opponents’ argument. He did not “dumb things down,” but, as the skilled teacher/editor, made things accessible.
He began by criticizing Barnett for overshadowing the problem of integration by raising constitutional questions and ignoring a court order permitting Meredith to register at the university. When Barnett finally capitulated to the federal mandate, Mac noted that this “does not change [Barnett’s] views on the matter,” and then focused on the crux of the argument—states rights versus federal law:
On matters pertaining to the Constitution, the federal courts have the authority to make final decisions and the right to expect that the executive branch of the government will see to it that they are enforced.
In matters of civil rights, the United States government holds that every citizen is entitled to the individual liberties guaranteed him by the Bill of Rights and that the 14th Amendment made the first nine amendments to the Constitution binding upon the states as well as upon the federal government. The 14th amendment guarantees, among other things, that each citizen is to be given equal protection of the laws.
Mac explained that the argument of Barnett and others rested on an extreme literal reading of the Constitution. Because there was no mention of “public education” or “segregation,” they argued, the court ruling was illegal. With his knowledge of history, Mac discussed Kentucky and Virginia’s opposition to laws passed by Congress in 1790. He brought in South Carolina’s attempts to nullify federal law in the 1820s and ’30s. He discussed the fight over the right of secession in 1860:
This constitutional issue was resolved on the battlefield in a struggle the full consequences of which the South has yet to pay. In countless court decisions since the Constitution was ratified, the supremacy of federal over state law has been established. It is no argument at all to say that since the Constitution does not specifically mention education, the federal government has no authority in this field.
. . . .
In precedent after precedent, the courts have clearly established that there are implied powers not specifically stated in the Constitution which give Federal Courts, the Congress and the President a great many powers. Nowhere in the Constitution will one find any mention of the National Labor Regulation Board, yet few people will argue with the right of such executive body to arbitrate labor disputes or with the right of the courts and the President to enforce the rulings of this body.
One will search in vain for reference in the Constitution to the federal income tax, the Federal Communication Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission, or any other of the regulatory agencies which exercise such tremendous power in our government today. Yet few will argue that wage and hour, minimum wage, and agricultural laws, as well as the federal income tax, are unconstitutional.
If the Supreme Court had no authority to rule on the constitutionality of legislative acts or executive orders, then the Court would have been acting illegally in ordering President Truman to return the steel mills to their owners in 1952 and would have been without authority to review any of the laws passed during the New Deal. Does anyone seriously believe that the American system could long survive under such an arrangement?
After his thorough history lesson, Mac offered an accessible, but compelling analogy: “Whether it be a ball game or a government, there must be rules to go by, and there must be umpires to settle disputes. That is the function of our federal courts. That question is settled. No amount of legal sophistry by Gov. Barrett and no amount of riots and demonstrations at the University of Mississippi will change it.” To this he added: “To upset the legal tradition and reverse the whole pattern of jurisprudence in this country would be to create intolerable chaos and confusion. It would paralyze the nation and render its government impotent at a point in history when the country faces unparalleled dangers … What was not clear in 1790, 1832 and 1860 is crystal clear today. The situation in Mississippi approximates insurrection.”
Mac completed the editorial with points that continue to ring true today:
The question of state sovereignty was settled 110 years ago. The states are not sovereign. This is a misnomer. States rights, something quite different from sovereignty, do not include the right to disobey federal law as interpreted by the courts or to deprive any citizen of rights guaranteed to him by the Constitution.
How does one argue with that? Answer: not very well. Mac’s reasonableness—a term his son David used in part 2 of this series to describe Mac’s temperament and persistent, calm argumentative style—was bolstered by his command of history and augmented by a writing style that juxtaposed formality with, at times, a comfortable familiarity. The result: serious, convincing writing—rich in detail and, more importantly, insight. As Shannon A. Justice, the former general manager of The Cheraw Chronicle, observed in 2012: “In his editorial writing, Secrest has the ability to take complicated matters and break them down … explain them clearly through the thoroughness of his historical knowledge … and give the reader the opportunity to discover the significance of the argument and then determine what makes, or doesn’t make, sense.”
She was saying the longest prayer possible in order to put off going to sleep. She was “God-blessing” everybody she could think of, and when she had gotten past all the members of the family, all our friends, all the cousins, and the uncles and the aunts, and the household pets, she added, “And God bless everybody else in the whole world.” She paused, thought for a minute, then added, “Except Gov. Barnett.”
In another 1962 editorial, Mac revisited the college integration conflict involving James Meredith:
If most people credit Gov. Ross Barnett with sincerity in his defense of state sovereignty, and most people do, however misguided they may believe him to be, why can’t the same credit be extended to James Meredith, Negro applicant at Ole Miss?
Mac began by addressing Meredith’s critics, who claimed he “isn’t interested in getting an education there, … is a poor choice for the role, [and is] being paid off by the NAACP.” Mac downplayed the financial incentive with “Maybe he is,” but immediately added “… those who know [Meredith] describe the slight, 29-year-old Air Force veteran as a ‘man with a mission.’ ”
The connotation in elevating Meredith’s endeavor to “a mission” was significant, and Mac built upon it—suggesting that the objective of Meredith’s cause was likely far more important than financial reward, that “perhaps Meredith feels that he is fighting for a cause larger than himself, for the opportunity of future generations.” After invoking the future, Mac then recalled the past:
It was this same sort of fervor that prompted Negro grandmothers to walk to work for months in Birmingham rather than ride on segregated buses, the same sort of dedication that prompts Negro college students to run the risks inherent in sit-ins and freedom rides. No, one cannot dismiss the Negro urge for equality of opportunity as simply a desire to make a fast buck.
While Mac united the generations, he then distinguished the young activists:
Most people define good race relations as simply the absence of conflict. But the younger generations of Negroes don’t see it that way. They understand that such a definition simply perpetuates the status quo. They view this as peace at any price, with Negroes meeting most of the costs. With most of the country behind their aspirations for a larger stake in American democracy, there is no chance that the new generation of Negro leaders will accept the old definition of good race relations.
They view good, healthy race relations as an open and free exchange of opinion whereby differences are expressed and then worked out. The interaction of ideas and the compromise and changes which arise out of them spell real progress to them.
Mac went on to write: “It is not easy to find a candidate for potential martyrdom such as James Meredith … Whether or not you agree with Meredith …, you have to admire [his] courage and dedication.”
The editorial, beyond asserting facts and perspectives, was significant in helping people read between the lines. By evoking powerful images of the Birmingham bus boycott and current protests, by creating a sense of continuity between generations, by juxtaposing an older view of “good race relations” with a ’60s view attributed to “the new generation of Negro leaders,” by using terms like “open and free exchange of opinion,” Mac described a process in which people communicate, compromise, and work out differences.
Lofty and idealistic? Yes. Naïve? Absolutely not, as history has confirmed—although at the time it must have appeared that way to many people, both Black and White. When one reads that editorial today, 54 years after it was written, one is struck by the inspiration and insight.
As discussed in parts 1 and 2 of this series, the reasonableness and genuineness of Mac, the person, help explain his success as an editorial writer, which is further validated by The Chronicle’s success as a business. During his 17-year tenure, the paper’s circulation, amount of advertising and net profit increased each year. In his book Mac explained why The Chronicle not only survived but thrived, especially since “it would have been easy for outraged readers to drive me out of Cheraw at any time between 1954 and 1968” (443). In explaining why that did not happen and why the liberal, progressive views of The Chronicle “prevail[ed] over the much larger, more powerful voices of the State, the Greenville News, and the News and Courier” (443), Mac gave credit to “the average citizen”:
There must also have been deep affirmative bonds among many individuals of the two races that went deeper than the surface fear and resentment the court decisions aroused and politicians exploited. There was also the presence of strong, well-organized Negro organizations. Black people weren’t afraid, or, if they were, they overcame their personal fears out of a devotion to a larger cause. (Curses and Blessings, 444)
He also credited his newspaper’s evenhandedness:
[O]ur readers accepted the Chronicle because it remained a community newspaper, neither obsessed by nor avoiding discussion about race relations and related political, legal and constitutional issues. Cheraw was a microcosm of small towns all over the post World War II South, and there was plenty to write about besides racial matters. Any honest reading of the Chronicle or understanding of my personal activism would reveal my pragmatism and moderation. To call me a radical, a communist, fellow traveler, outside agitator, carpetbagger, scalawag and so on was just too laughable to be believed. (444)
In other editorials Mac showed his appreciation for the strides being made in the South, even while he urged further progress. In contrast to the simple sound bites of today’s media, it was his ability to explain his points thoroughly that is so compelling. For example, in a March 26, 1959 editorial about South Carolina’s progress in developing its public school system, Mac explained why the state’s low ranking in terms of public school funding does not tell the full story. Beginning his editorial with a quote from Gov. Ernest F. Hollings (“All of us must realize that we in state government are trying to correct the ills of a century in eight short years.”), Mac then stated “[a] revolution has occurred in education in this state since 1950.”
Mac spoke of Hollings’ honest admission “that historically our state has been something less than perfect in its efforts on behalf of public education.” In explaining how statistics often distort, Mac argued that South Carolina didn’t “get the credit we really deserve for progress made over the past decade.” He admitted that South Carolina ranked 48th or 49th among the states in education spending, but he pointed out that the public didn’t hear “the corresponding explanations: that we have a lower per capita income, and, therefore, less money to spend; that we have a greater percentage of school-age children to educate than any other state; or that, from a state aid vantage point, South Carolina ranks eighth among the states in her appropriations to public schools, when we compare state to local effort.”
He offered a sobering thought: “The reason our system of public education isn’t even better than it is lies in the fact that we had such a long way to come.” That explanation was no attempt to conceal or obfuscate or deny. He was honest: “Although we have had a glorious history in many respects, we’ve always been rather laggard in the matter of public education.” He explained South Carolina’s lack of concern for developing a strong public school system, as well as providing “no effort” to offer schools for Black children. Mac recalled the 1911 governor’s veto of money for a Black college, which that politician labeled “a curse against the people of South Carolina”; the defeat of a $10 million bond issue in 1924 for public schools (as contrasted with a $65 million bond issue for highways five years later); and the state’s tardiness and reluctance in levying a sales tax for school purposes, in approving the 12th grade, and in paying for vital public school services. Mac returned positively to the present: “Indeed a revolution HAS occurred in the past nine years, and when our State is the object of criticism, we can at least take comfort in the fact that we have at last taken off the blinders and are making tremendous strides forward.”
In addition to his realistic state pride, Mac was also one to stand up for his region, the South, but not based on blind chauvinism. In a February 5, 1959 editorial, he sought to educate those who chose to view discrimination as only a Southern phenomenon. When the Civil Rights Commission went to New York City to investigate housing discrimination, Mac wrote: “[W]e hope the Commission will reveal the sham, hypocrisy, and self-righteous deceit which converts the New Yorker’s concern for Southern Negroes into such crocodile tears.”
As usual, Mac bolstered his argument with facts. “While it is to [New York’s] credit that there are laws to prevent discrimination, there is a tremendous gap between the law and actual performance.” He was even-handed in his approach. Rather than pit North against South, he spoke to injustice wherever it existed:
So long as [prejudice and discrimination are] permitted to exist …, cities will suffer from juvenile gangs, black board jungles, and all the other horrors reported in the headlines of the daily press. The waste of human potentialities, not to mention the more obvious problems, is sad to contemplate. The first step toward improvement of the situation is to publicize the facts and make the problem known. That is an important contribution the Civil Rights Commission can make in New York. We’re glad it is training its guns North as well as South.
Next Issue: Part 4 explores the psychological and developmental experiences of childhood and adolescence that shaped Mac Secrest’s voice as a crusading editor.
Secrest, Andrew McDowd. (2004). Curses and Blessings: Life and Evolution in the 20th Century South. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House.
A time for courage, responsibility. Cheraw, S.C.: The Cheraw Chronicle, May, 1954.
A voice heard across the nation: A.M. “Mac” Secrest gained national attention with these October 2, 1962 editorials on desegregation and issues at Ole Miss. Cheraw, S.C.: The Cheraw Chronicle & The Chesterfield Advertiser.