As the voice of his newspaper, as the conscience of his community, his state, his country and even the world, and as a federal mediator for civil rights, Mac Secrest chose roles that—literally and figuratively—set him apart.
By Tom Scheft
In the last issue we looked at Mac, the editorial writer. In this issue, we explore the childhood, adolescent, and adult experiences and influences that led him to become a powerful, passionate, empathic journalist.
In his autobiography, when discussing his role as editor, Mac Secrest was low-key and self-effacing—repeatedly emphasizing that an editor’s role is not for the timid. Activists who chose Mac’s progressive point of view in the South during the 1950s and ’60s understood they were hated by a great segment of the population, and many were the victims of intimidation, violence, and even assassination. Unlike those who used their wealth to remove themselves from the struggle of the oppressed, which Mac had the means to do, he chose a life dedicated to bringing justice and equality for all people. What was the source of Mac’s philosophical beliefs and editorial voice? To answer this question, it is necessary to go back to his childhood in Monroe, N.C., starting with his view of himself as “a boy set apart.”
Mac painted himself and his family as “typical,” and he repeated this refrain often throughout the early parts of his book. He was a child of privilege. He recalled his mother, sisters, and hired caregivers doting on him as “the prized heir apparent, thoroughly loved and cosseted from the day I was born.” He described his mother as a sweet, loving woman, yet someone who suffered from depression and had to be institutionalized a number of times throughout her life, perhaps leading to his feeling of being “set apart” in a visceral sense. His father was a successful businessman and bank officer, a multi-millionaire with various holdings (among them a car dealership, a pharmacy, and a vast farm worked by tenants). Mac described his father as a “Democrat and a Populist” who “believed in helping his tenant farmers work themselves out of what he recognized was a feudal and futile economic system that handicapped the many for the benefit of the few.”
While the family’s affluence certainly set Mac apart from most in the community, his clothing during his early years as a student alienated him from his classmates whose families were farmers and workers at the cotton mill. Dressed by his mother “as Little Lord Fauntleroy, complete with black satin shorts and silk shirt,” Mac was an object of scorn beginning in the first grade. Looking back as an adult, Mac wrote: “The ridicule, taunting and teasing may have been understandable, but I felt picked on and rejected … I was a logical target, not only because of the way I was dressed but also because of my obvious privilege. I was taken to school by a nursemaid or chauffeur.”
In this privileged home environment Mac was able to develop an extensive vocabulary. While it would serve him well as a journalist, Mac’s vocabulary was a problem for him as a six-year-old. Ridiculed one day for his wardrobe and for using a big word (“impossible”), Mac replied to his tormentors with a phrase he’d heard his grandmother say: “How can you accuse me of being verbose, when I am only employing my ordinary vernacular?” After that episode, he was nicknamed “Impossible” and had to endure a his share of bullying. The name and abuse would stick until age 11, when — older and more physically developed, armed with a “new farm-toughened self-assertiveness” — he won a schoolyard fight and instantly became a hero. “No bully or any prior tormentor was willing to challenge me now,” he recalled.
While the schoolyard was a battle zone for the young Secrest, at home he was “the center of attention.” Admittedly “spoiled and undisciplined” during this time, was surrounded by loving, smiling females—“mother, aunts, sisters, cousins, family friends, cooks, caregivers and nursemaids” — constantly showering him with superlatives: the cutest, the sweetest, the smartest.
Mac recalled his boyhood as “carefree, happy, bucolic”—a time of improvised games, as well as basketball, tennis and croquet; vacations at the beach, as well as Sunday school outings, church and camp meetings; and sleepovers. He also recalled “explor[ing] abandoned wells and learn[ing] how to handle the animals, climb[ing] trees, swim[ming] in a local pond or the abandoned rock quarry.” On a typical day he and his farm friends “explored, hunted, fished and fought, friendly style, from early morning till sunset.”
Most of Mac’s childhood friends did not enjoy his socioeconomic privilege. Many of them were Black. While Mac would go on to attend Duke and Harvard University, meet and establish relationships with famous people—from politicians to presidents to celebrities, he learned early in life to see the potential goodness in people without regard to their lack of material things or the color of their skin.
Mac developed an early fascination with ancient history, which differentiated him from most of the surrounding preteens. His love of reading and research would continue throughout his life. As an adult, it was the rare historical or political topic with which he was unfamiliar.
Philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana once said: “He who does not understand history is doomed to repeat it.” Surely the young Mac Secrest intuitively embraced that belief. His passion for the subject served him well as someone who “loved to argue with people,” as his son David has characterized him. According to David, Mac’s penchant for friendly arguing was an opportunity to flex his historical muscles. As editor, there were always good arguments brewing and, as explained in Part 3 of this series, Mac was quick to use historical information to justify his positions and enlighten/educate his audience.
Roosevelt was set apart from his natural friends and his social set by his pragmatic political views. He was “that man in the White House” and “that traitor to his class.” He thundered against the “malefactors of great wealth.” He relished their hostility and was a self-proclaimed “tough-guy” who “loved a good fight” against the self-appointed “in-crowd” on behalf of “the little man.”
At the age of 12, as his knowledge of history grew, Mac used it to understand and come to grips with the world in which he lived—the common occurrences of daily life, the cast of characters in his hometown, and the various things that did and did not happen in his town and throughout the South. This was a time when many White children were taught the myth of the Ku Klux Klan as the “good guys” protecting the South from the evil influences of Blacks, Jews and Catholics. As a young man, Mac was able to see the contradictions between appearance and reality:
Blacks and whites co-mingled peacefully together in the stores and on the street, but you seldom if ever saw a black face behind the counter … Young white men, known as drugstore cowboys, could be found “standing on the corner, giving all the girls the eye,” with long suggestive whistles directed at white and black alike. No one called sexual harassment in those days. And no one ever shot and killed any of these white teenagers, either, as someone did the black 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago one afternoon in a little town in Mississippi some twenty years later for whistling at a white woman.
While his memoir reveals a young man who could be a typical teen—silly, moody and emotional, Mac was consumed with serious thoughts that went far beyond life in Monroe. He was well aware of conditions throughout the world, including the threat of Adolf Hitler. Even during band practice as he played the clarinet, his thoughts were on weightier matters. “How silly” to him his school-based pursuits seemed, “how trivial, while mean men in Europe are threatening the world with war and aggression and killing hapless minorities who don’t look or act as a tyrannical majority demands.” Again, the teenage Mac acknowledged his difference from others: “I was definitely set apart. No one else my age knew or cared anything at all about Europe, wars or rumors of wars that, once unleashed, would surely reach our shores.”
Psychologist David Elkind discusses what he calls "the personal fable," the common adolescent characteristic of believing "nobody understands how I feel." This trait renders itself in any number of immature behaviors and beliefs during the teen years (and beyond). However, certain people manage to take this feeling and shape it maturely. As an adult journalist, Mac would channel that feeling of being set apart into his role as an editor, a stranger in a strange land, and reach out in an attempt to include his readers.
One can’t help but wonder about the motives of reporters, editors, and pundits. Clearly, some are in love with the sound of their voice—be it aloud or on paper. Clearly, there must be some kind of arrogance, some sense of intellectual superiority—even a little bit—in assuming the role of educator to the masses. And, certainly, there are altruistic and other noble motives as well. One is inclined to give Mac the benefit of the doubt here. Certainly, he was not a saint. He was often a funny guy who, on some occasions, would do exaggerated impressions of certain people whose behaviors he found immature or egotistical. This was rare and done with humor and without meanness of spirit. Most often he was prone to do over-the-top caricatures of himself. First and foremost, however, Mac was an understanding person, which is not always the case of those born into affluence. Mac was well aware of the privilege he enjoyed, and he didn’t see it as any kind of confirmation that he was better than others. Instead of retreating into a life of materialism and safety, which he could have done, Mac dedicated himself to making the world a better place, a more just place … even at the risk of his life and the lives of his family.
His ability to embrace others as people, especially Black people living in segregation and discrimination, came from his knowledge of history and his exposure to different ethnicities. He was able to see the flaws in stereotypes at an early age; he was able to see beyond them. It was his understanding of privilege that allowed him to empathize with those less fortunate—with those exploited politically, socially and economically.
This ability to see the complexity of human existence started—unbeknownst to the very young Mac—with his parents. While he loved his parents, he was fully immersed in the dysfunction of their relationship. They, like many a husband and wife, displayed markedly different personalities and temperaments. As a teenager, Mac saw their relationship as a “parental war, which had been on, it seemed to me, ever since I could remember [and] was still being waged.” As his mother dealt with depression, Mac, an empathic child, had to deal with it as well. He missed her dearly during her times of being institutionalized—this “lively, beautiful mother who brought light, laughter, and love into our lives.” While part of him blamed his father, he understood the situation wasn’t that simple. He found himself—the dutiful, caring son—in the role of mediator. There was little public understanding of depression in those days. In reflecting upon his mother’s illness in his book, he noted: “Daddy felt Mother’s condition was spitefully aimed at him, and in some ways it may have been.” Beyond his love for his parents, he saw flaws in both: “Mother wasn’t so sick as she thought and at times behaved. Her condition really did not bother me much except when Daddy was around; to me he was the fly in the family ointment. And when Mother was not around, Daddy was all right.” As Mac became more conscious of the complexity of people and relationships, particularly the relationship between his mother and father, it must have grown clear to him that money and social standing weren’t an “answer” for everything; they obviously didn’t guarantee happiness and harmony.
Another important event in understanding Mac’s character is his having to deal with the death of his child, Phil, who died of leukemia in 1973 at the age of 21—one of those unimaginable traumas with which so many of us are able to avoid. But Mac, his wife Ann, and their children Molly and David could not escape that reality. That personal pain certainly set them apart. Under those circumstances one can understand how easy it would be to withdraw from the world, to be spiteful and bitter. But they did not:
How do you get over the loss of a child? In a sense, you don’t. You never forget. You wouldn’t even want to. Give yourself some space. Gradually angry resignation is replaced by peaceful acceptance. Father Time and Mother Nature eventually take care of everything. I don’t question any more. And happy memories have crowded out the sad ones.