Saturday, September 23, 2017

Confronting Strom Thurmond: Mediating the Events in Selma


Andrew McDowd “Mac” Secrest, September 15, 1923-April 17, 2010

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

Part 5

Confronting Strom Thurmond

One of the loudest voices in the preservation of segregation was Strom Thurmond, who ran for President as a member of the States Rights Democratic Party in 1948. Although beaten handily, garnering less than three percent of the popular vote, he enjoyed a long tenure (1954-2003) as a senator from South Carolina. He was against all civil rights legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While many people felt he moderated his views in the 1970s, he never offered any apology for his previous positions. After his death, earlier rumors that he was the father of a Black child born out of wedlock were substantiated. At age 22 he had a sexual relationship with his family’s African-American maid, who was 16 at the time; she gave birth to a daughter. While he had not claimed the child publicly during his lifetime, it was reported that he provided some financial support and paid for her college education.

Mac dealt with Thurmond when the senator visited Cheraw, S.C., in 1967 on a mission to convince local leaders to form committees that would root out and censor any print materials in schools or public libraries that “even implied acceptance of integration and thus posed a threat to ‘our Southern way of life.’ ” Thurmond was invited to be the speaker at an annual meeting of a medical association and a legal association. As a representative of Cheraw’s newspaper, Mac was invited and given a seat on the dais:

I listened, took notes, wrote an objective story, quoting the Senator carefully. Then I put on my editor’s hat and wrote an opinion piece titled “A Profile in Extremism.” To add insult to injury, that article won first place for editorial writing in the annual South Carolina Press Association contest. Outgoing governor Donald Russell made the presentation at the banquet in Columbia which the Senator attended.

Mac encountered Thurmond a year later, after they shared a flight to Washington, D.C.:

Seeing a familiar face but clearly unable to place me, Senator Thurmond asked if I would like a lift into town. “Why, thank you, sir,” I replied. “That is very kind of you.” To satisfy his curiosity, I identified myself. The Senator stopped abruptly, peered into my face, shook his head and snapped, “Forget it,” leaving me to get to Bethesda the best way I could.

While acknowledging that Thurmond’s career was “remarkable” in terms of its longevity, Mac’s assessment of the Senator’s character was much considerably more critical:

His defenders say he mellowed and changed with the times. Why, he even eventually appointed black people to his staff. But the record will show he was well past fifty when he first went to Washington, nearing sixty when conducted a one-man filibuster against a pallid civil rights bill in 1958, and nearing seventy when he launched his tirade against the First Amendment in Cheraw and sought to intimidate not only his black constituents but also white progressives with whom he disagreed. It was a conversion too late in the coming ever favorably to impress me.
                       
While Mac credits Thurmond for finally acknowledging his daughter and “lending her affection and emotional support,” he also describes the Senator’s monetary support as “meager.” Ultimately, Mac’s opinion of the man remained unchanged: “He was a hypocrite, and he placed his political ambitions above the good of his progeny and of his country.”

Mediating The Events in Selma
                       
In June 1964, Mac went to Washington, D.C., to co-chair a task force that would lead to the formation of the Community Relations Service, an organization advocated by Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the two years Mac worked with the agency, his job was to “settle racial disputes and disagreements all over the country.” In doing so, his journey would take him to Selma, Alabama in January 1965, where Mac notes he played “a small role in an event that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1966.”
           
Selma had been targeted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for voting restrictions, because less than two percent of the Black population was registered to vote, but in addition to that problem, there were other concerns Mac mentions in his book: police brutality under then sheriff Jim Clark, unequal protection of the law, denial of Black representation on municipal ruling bodies, the refusal by the all-White local government to obey provisions in the recently passed Civil Rights Act, separate but unequal schools, and lack of economic opportunity. Joining King were the Southern Christian Leadership Congress (SCLC), the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNICK), the national NAACP, and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Mac notes that Malcolm X would occasionally visit, although he was in disagreement with King’s non-violent approach.

In Selma, Blacks had routinely been denied the right to vote based on unfair testing practices. All one has to do is try taking one of those “tests” to experience the awkward, convoluted syntax; the vague, puzzling wording that often included legalese; and the uncommon topics that would leave most anyone perplexed, frustrated and angered. You can find a number of examples on the Internet.

King wanted to march to Montgomery, Alabama, to bring this injustice before the nation and to force an end to the discriminatory practice. Gov. George Wallace refused to issue a permit for the march, citing a threat to public safety. Passage across the Edmund Pettus Bridge was denied by highway patrolmen.

Mac and his colleagues with the CRS tried to reduce the tension and enlist the aid of Alabama residents, but as he recalled: “I possessed no carrots, in the way of federal funds, to bribe and sticks, in the form of legal authority, to coerce anybody to do anything.”

Mac depicts a Sunday in March when marchers—“now thousands strong, white as well as black with a strong contingent of religious leaders”—were confronted by a police barricade:

Sheriff Clark’s men moved forward. The posse, riding their horses and cracking their whips like Russian Cossacks on some pogrom, attacked the marchers. Blackjacks came out. So did police dogs. Some cattle prods came into use. The marchers—once a primarily middle-class crowd, with a sprinkling of intellectual, religious, media and political elitists among them—became a disorganized and demoralized crowd, running helter-skelter for their lives. Hundreds were injured, some seriously. John Lewis had his head laid open. Nuns, other women, and children were among the casualties. This scene, broadcast on television Friday night, was flashed around the world.

Mac returned home that night. For two months he’d been away from his family, except for one weekend. The pressure of the job had left him physically and mentally drained. As he recounts in his book, he had been home when the head of CRS called and told him President Johnson wanted him back in Selma the next day. When Mac returned, he saw the crowd of activists had grown, and Dr. King was proclaiming the march would take place on Tuesday. The opposition readied its forces:
           
Al Lingo, [a career Alabama highway patrolman, director of the Alabama Department of Public Safety, and] long-time nemesis of the civil rights movement, lined up hundreds of highway patrol cars to block passage across the bridge and was authorized to use whatever force necessary to prevent its crossing. The struggle intensified in Selma itself and in surrounding rural counties where an occasional body was found dead in associated conflict. Clark’s posse was ready. So were Baker’s police.

While tension remained at the breaking point, Secrest, Gov. Collins (the CRS director), Andrew Young, and Dr. King met. Earlier, Mac had spoken with Kenneth Goodson, a Methodist bishop in Birmingham, and urged him to speak with Gov. Wallace and Lingo about restraining the police:
           
Young and I met with march leaders and urged them to agree to halt voluntarily, once they had made the symbolic move across the bridge. If that were achieved, an agreement about a march on Montgomery later would be easier to get. The civil rights leaders agreed. They were worn out. The governor agreed. He and his troopers were, too. No one really wanted a repeat on Tuesday of the hateful thing that had occurred the preceding Friday.

Now all Andy and I had to do was to get Gov. Collins and Dr. King’s approval. We presented our plan. The governor and Clark and their men would move back several hundred yards and allow the marchers to cross the bridge. The protesters would in turn stop voluntarily once they had make their symbolic march, proclaim victory, and then return to Selma to lay further plans. We got each side to initial the agreements I had scribbled off on the back of an old envelope.
           
King conferred with Young. Collins conferred with me. Then we swapped conferees. “Do you really think I ought to do this, Secrest?” Dr. King asked me. Yes. I did. Collins asked the same thing of Young. Yes, he did. Together Young and I, given a police escort through the crowd, rode back to Governor Wallace. A temporary solution had been found. Before the end of that month, a permanent one was reached and the march on Montgomery was held, with Peter, Paul, and Mary leading the crowd and a host of celebrities in singing “We Shall Overcome” from the Alabama Capitol steps.
           
Collins and I flew back to Washington that night. The President asked us to come to the White House to thank us for what we had done to “save the nation from another day of shame.” With astonishing speed the Congress passed and the President signed a new Voting Rights Act which occasioned an eventual political revolution in the South and a realignment of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Mac remained in Selma for a while. With the city no longer a public media stage, the national civil rights groups departed. But both the struggle for civil rights and the violence remained:

Upon my return to Selma, a white Unitarian minister, the Reverend Mr. Reeb, was set upon by a group of young white toughs and beaten so severely he died the next day. It was my unhappy duty to meet his family at the Montgomery Airport and take them to Selma and to express the government’s regrets.
           
A little later a young white woman—Viola Liuzzo—was shot to death in her car by a group of white men as she ferried still more civil rights activists. In that car was an F.B.I. informant who led to the arrest of the killers. I attended the trial of the young gunman, named Collie, some weeks later.

In offering his view of the historic events in Selma, Mac explains how the emotional tone was constantly shifting daily:

One hour I might be on the phone, asking a district or appellate federal judge how to interpret his latest order. The next I may have been measuring the distance from a store window to the protesters on the sidewalk and chalking it off, as contesting and protesting antagonists squared off and shouted at each other.

Typical of Mac, in recounting the tensions, tragedies and triumphs of Selma, he also juxtaposes two situations in which he makes fun of himself. On one occasion, he oversleeps, skips washing his face and brushing his teeth, hastily dresses, slaps on his hairpiece, and reports for duty at a scene where a protest is scheduled. He arrives before anything has started. In heat and humidity of a typical Southern day, Mac starts to sweat:  

As perspiration accumulated under my hair piece, which needed fresh tape, beaded up on my forehead, and began to roll down my face, I kneeled down to the sidewalk to illustrate a point with some chalk. As I did so, off slid the hair piece.

Before Mac could retrieve it, his partner grabbed it away and flaunted it before the assembled crowd, which responded with laughs and taunts. Mac sums up the event as “an unusual but effective way to break tension and get the negotiation process started again.”
           
He describes another embarrassing event that resulted from his “irregular hours” in Selma. The long days (often followed by evening activities like religious rallies), the haphazard eating schedule, and the constant standing had led him to develop hemorrhoids, which Mac soothed with Preparation H. While at a street meeting, Mac, his back suddenly aching, bent over to relieve the pain, and his Preparation H tube fell to the ground. Again, his partner seized the moment:

He grabbed the container, danced around before the crowd, and shouted, “Oh look what I’ve found! Did somebody lose this ointment? Anybody in pain and need relief?” Again tension gave way to laughter. I had long since passed embarrassment.

Funny stories, sure. But why include them in your memoir—especially so closely linked to such a serious, significant historic event? Part of the answer, I believe, gives us an understanding of and appreciation for Mac, the human being. In writing about himself, he is not afraid to share with the reader the good, the bad, and the ugly of life—even at his own expense. As he did in life, he emerges from the pages of his book as genuine—a “round” character (as they say in literature classes), not some sanitized public relations sketch. Typically, the secure person can make fun of him- or herself, largely because that person understands our follies are not ours alone. Our faults and faux pas are hardly unique to us. We share them as human beings. They help connect us.
           
Mac’s self-awareness, his understanding of what it means to be human, and his embrace of his own human frailties as people made Mac both an effective journalist and an effective mediator. He was motivated through understanding, not disdain or hatred. His tools were not weapons. He used words—on the page and from his mouth, by way of his heart and his mind. He did so with eyes wide open. He was no Pollyanna. He was not naïve. As a student of history, he, like Dr. King, saw the virtue and the practicality of non-violent protest, the power of reason, and the possibility of people changing for the better. And he did this living humbly for a cause.

Next Issue: In Part 6, we conclude our profile of Mac Secrest with reflections by his niece, journalist Bella English of The Boston Globe, and his son David, a former journalist with The Atlanta Constitution. We also revisit the concept of the hero and how it relates to us as individuals.

Reference

Secrest, Andrew McDowd. (2004). Curses and Blessings: Life and Evolution in the 20th Century South. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House.

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