Sunday, April 8, 2018

Portrait of a Journalist as the Conscience of His Community

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 6 (concluding installment)

Sometimes the trouble with meeting our “heroes” is they turn out to be—and I’ll be kind here—jerks. While our admiration may have developed around their singing, athletic, intellectual or acting prowess, beyond that, we sadly discover, they aren’t particularly nice people. Mac Secrest, in addition to his significant work in the fight for civil rights, was an amazing individual—a wonderful husband, father, friend, and teacher (just to name some of his roles).

His niece Bella English—a former journalist with The New York Daily News, The Miami Herald and The Winston-Salem Journal, and currently a feature writer and columnist for The Boston Globe—wrote a column in 2010 shortly after Mac’s death that spoke to his qualities as a person, especially his love for and devotion to his extended family. She began her piece talking about how uncles can easily be overlooked, how they often get played for comic relief or as evil-doers in literature and film. But then she focused on Mac as an “uncle [who] was a huge and loving presence in my life … whom I teasingly called the Teddy Kennedy of our small extended family, for he was the Super Glue that held the three branches together.”
English recounted Mac’s days with The Cheraw Chronicle. “While the large dailies trumpeted their support for segregation,” she wrote, “Uncle Mac’s was a lone, courageous, and consistent voice in opposition.” She discussed the threats he and his family endured, the gunshots fired into their house, and the signs placed in their yard. Noted English: “It’s no coincidence that of the 10 first cousins—including his own son—four of us became journalists.”

English discussed Mac’s role in relation to the extended family, describing him as “family-minded from the time he was a young man, stepping up whenever his mother and sisters had various crises.” She told of Mac’s devotion to her and his other seven nieces and nephews “whom he claimed to love as his own”:

Uncle Mac never missed a family event; in fact, he was the instigator of most of them, hosting, roasting, and toasting. He and Aunt Ann were there when my son was christened, and they threw my daughter’s college graduation party at their retirement center. It was unusual for a man of his era to be so family-minded, and it was a role he cherished. I believe that, raised with so many women, he had a feminine heart.

Uncle Mac was the family historian, and could go back generations talking about his great-great-great-grandfather or a “fourth cousin, once removed.” He loved boxer dogs, history, Bette Davis, and Duke basketball. He made the best fudge on the planet. He was brilliant and hilarious, a talker and a contrarian, never using one word when 10 would do. Before computers, he’d send 15-page letters, scribbled on both sides, including the margins and the back of the envelope. After computers, he’d write e-mails that filled screen after screen.

Mac loved to communicate with pen and paper. As such, he was an effective giver-of-feedback as a teacher. He would not only dutifully point out punctuation, usage, and structural concerns, but offer excellent suggestions on improving the content—deleting the unnecessary or obvious; adding a new, fresh example (or two … or three); spicing up an opening; adding a new source … anything to improve the piece. He would start in the margins—writing with a blue ballpoint pen—and carry on the “discussion” (his notes were remarkably conversational) to the back of the page and, if necessary (and it usually was for Mac), onto the next page … and beyond.

The funniest reference I ever heard to Mac’s penchant for extensive writing came at a party Mac and Ann hosted to announce formally the upcoming publication of his memoir, Curses and Blessings: Life and Evolution in the 20th Century South. Among several speakers was their son, David, who said, “I asked Daddy about his book, and he said it was nineteen-eighty-five … I’m not sure if that is the price or the number of pages.”

In her Boston Globe column, English noted Mac’s ability to make others feel good through humor, even at the most difficult of times, and that he had no trouble mocking himself, even during the final days of his life:

In an e-mail before the cancer surgery that led to his death in April, Uncle Mac wrote a parody of his own obituary. Noting that many obits begin with, “So and so died after a courageous fight with cancer,” he wrote: “A.M. Secrest died this week after a long, cowardly battle with cancer. Secrest, never known to make the best of a bad situation but often the worst of the best ones, whined and complained so much that when the curtain was finally drawn everyone who knew him drew a quiet breath of relief.”

While some may find the above passage anything but humorous, I howled when I read it. Despite Mac’s compassionate nature, he had a low tolerance for trivialized “drama.” He was a get-on-with-it/get-over-it/forgive-and-forget kind of guy. As a man who had spent a good part of his life risking his life, he demonstrated an ongoing appreciation for the wonderful things life had to offer—big and small. From my vantage point, his times of moodiness or crankiness were few, and if they did surface, he was very good at making fun of himself and “snapping out of it.”
Of the many things that brought him joy, I believe at the top of list was his wife, Ann. I never, ever, ever remember him saying anything critical of Ann. Never. He talked of her frequently and told stories about her in the most loving, most gleeful ways—like a 20-year-old talking about his “dream girl.” On one occasion we were eating lunch in his office. He was pulling things out of a lunch box that Ann had packed for him. He examined each item as though it were a little treasure. “Ah … a Winesap apple,” he remarked. “Love them … celery … carrots … good …” And he took out a small bag of M&M’s. “Hey!” he exclaimed, turning to me, thrusting the evidence in my direction, like a proud kindergartner displaying his artwork. “Look what Ann packed.” He looked at the bag. “Wasn’t that nice … That was very nice.”
I did not know Ann well, but I was able to see her with Mac a number of times. They appeared kindred spirits, and Mac recounted a story in his memoir in which Ann displayed the solid, practical wisdom I have always associated with him. One night when their son David was 18 years old, David told his mother he was going out to visit his girlfriend. Mac was away, and Ann—in charge—informed her son it was too late (almost midnight); he had to get up early for work; she needed her sleep, and the late rendezvous just wasn’t proper. After a brief exchange of yes-I-am/no-you’re-not, David left. The next morning he returned to a locked house:

He was admitted, with this ultimatum. “David, I am a working mother. I’m also responsible for you three children while your father is away. I need your help. Now you must decide whether you want to remain a member of the family or become a paying guest.” Ann explained briskly, “If you choose the latter, you’ll get a room, fresh towels and sheets once week, no meals, no laundry, and pay a rent of ten dollars a week. I’d much rather you remained in the family, but it’s up to you. You’re eighteen and of legal age.”

David was a good boy. He’d never been any trouble. His chin trembled as he replied, “I’d rather remain a part of the family.” That’s one family dust up I missed, but everyone agreed that Mama had handled it just right.

As a parent, I love that story. It says a lot about Ann; it says a lot about the bond between wife and husband:
[This parenting problem] wasn’t the last one. Phil’s turn came as did Molly’s, as they all reached those difficult adolescent years. We had decided after Phil’s diagnosis that it would benefit no one to exempt him from rules applied to his brother and sister. There weren’t many. The children didn’t require them.

It is often the case that when a parent begins a quest to serve others outside the family, his or her children feel neglected to the point of declaring war against the parent. Being a parent is a tough job. Raising self-reliant children is no small feat. Mac would be the first to credit his success to the contributions of his wife and children.
When I asked David Secrest about his parents, he spoke of them as a strong, mutually respectful pair. “My parents always seemed as one unit, at least to me, and, as far as I know, to Phil and Molly, too,” he said. “I never saw them disagree about anything of substance and, at least as far as parenting was concerned, they were of one accord. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever known a couple more devoted to each other. They always seemed to come first with each other, a rarity, certainly these days.”
David described his mother as “loving, without being publicly demonstrative.”  His dad, on the other hand, was “gregarious.” Said David, “Conversation was his avocation and, after retirement, his vocation. He could, and would, talk with anyone about anything. And he was always finding common connections with others, people and relatives they both knew, somehow.”
Remembering his father as the perpetual editor/teacher, David recalls the Secrest siblings and even his first cousins being “subjected to what we referred to as [Daddy’s] ‘L.L.s’—little lectures. Except they weren’t little. They were long and sweeping and inclusive to all, whether immediate family, close kin, friends, neighbors.”
The Secrest home was directed by two caring parents. Typical of the times, Mac worked outside of the home, so the bulk of the childcare fell to Ann. “She seemed strict in comparison with the mothers of my friends when we were growing up—no blue jeans, no comics, limited television,” remembers David. “Bedtime was 7 p.m. for seemingly ever. But she was loving.”
The values of the parents were discussed openly with the Secrest children. Clearly, the family was, in very public and private ways, set apart. “I do know that we were not allowed to use the N-word, so called, and we learned it from both parents,” said David. “I’m sure my mother just said it was forbidden, while my father probably went into great detail about it. It just wasn’t done. We were taught that our general feeling for people who did so was to pity them or feel sorry for them for not knowing better. Of course, most of our peers, and many adults around us, used it often and casually. Over time, though, people generally stopped using that word around us. Part of the difference probably was just because of changing times, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and later. But I suspect a lot of it was that our friends, certainly, knew that it was unacceptable in our household. I remember being proud of my parents, for their stances and beliefs, and for ‘walking the walk.’ ”

Final Thoughts, Lessons Learned

Mac Secrest is a hero of mine. His consistent, courageous actions to address discrimination remind me of a famous saying attributed to President John Fitzgerald Kennedy: “One person can make a difference and everyone should try.” Despite his accomplishments, however, I am certain Mac would downplay all this focus on himself that SOUTHERN CHANGES has offered me. I picture him terribly uncomfortable by this article’s spotlight. He would, instead, acknowledge himself as a part—a small part—of something much bigger. I can see him dismissing many—if not all—of his actions are merely “the right thing to do.”
Mac was not one to revel in past accomplishments, be they his or anyone else’s. He focused, instead, on new problems and challenges. He discussed this in a speech he gave at a meeting of the Cheraw, S.C. chapter of the NAACP on March 17, 1994:

So much has changed since I left Cheraw in 1969—nearly a quarter of a century ago! The South has changed—at times beyond recognition. The nation has changed, the whole world has changed—and, no doubt, you and I, reflecting, absorbing and initiating these changes, have changed as well. And yet, since life is a continuing contradiction, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising to discover that, as someone else has already observed: “Everything has changed and nothing has changed.” Integration has been achieved, yet segregation abounds. Racial tolerance and good will thrive in the midst of racial turmoil and tumult.

In his book, Mac admitted having trouble with role models and hero worship because of being “too aware of the clay in the feet of my idols,” but he does admit to having heroes—“Roosevelt, Churchill, the stable of CBS radio foreign correspondents of World War II, Roy Wilkins (Executive Director of the NAACP 1955-77), and, fleetingly, Adlai Stevenson and JFK.” He also mentions two editors from small towns—William Allen White (Emporia, Kansas) and Hodding Carter, Jr. (Greenville, Miss.). Carter’s “example above all else influenced me to become a journalist,” said Mac, who described the man as being “nationally known as a voice of reason on race relations in a Mississippi otherwise gone mad.”

If I’ve learned one lesson from my time with Mac and my awareness of his contributions, it would be to commit actively to living a good and just life—to bring the passion and the clarity and the resolve that Mac did. As I wrote in Part 1 of this series, I don’t know whether I could have summoned his courage if presented with similar circumstances. But despite my limitations, that doesn’t stop me—or anyone else—from trying to make a difference and doing the right thing.
Clarity and resolve, those words are basic to success. We need to be able to think and reason clearly and thoughtfully; we need to be able to persevere, to “hang in there.” Passion, however, can be misconstrued. It often suggests the overly emotional or extreme, while paradoxically connoting both positive and negative aspects.
Mac was passionate and driven in dealing with life. No meteoric, short-lived burst of light, he was a steadfast, dependable beacon. His passion came across in his love and admiration for his immediate and extended families … and for millions of people he would never meet and never know. His passion came across in his ability to always make an effort—whether engaging in conversation, tackling a problem, or educating a student (and at one time or another, many who knew him found themselves in a teacher-student relationship with Mac).
David Secrest marvels at his father’s “relative youth when he did some of the things he did and wrote some of the things he wrote.” Mac was not yet 30 years old when he bought The Cheraw Chonicle in 1953. “His front-page editorial on the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 was written by a 31-year-old,” said David. “He started his ‘mini-career’ as a civil rights mediator in the summer of ’64; he was still 40. And he was just 41 in Selma the next summer. He was five years older than MLK and just six years younger than JFK.”
In many ways Mac is the antithesis of today’s popular culture hero. He was no fictional creation with super powers and flashy costume. He was never on the cover of a magazine or given his own reality show. Many people do not know his name and deeds—even though he worked side-by-side well-known heroes like Dr. King, Dick Gregory, and Andrew Young.
My point is … Mac Secrest—whether would have liked it or not—is a hero. And that’s important for the rest of us. Heroes don’t need super powers or spandex. They don’t need to be on TV. They don’t need the pseudo trappings of celebrity—a clothing line, mansion, stable of cars, pictures splashed across the tabloids. Heroes don’t need an agent or a PR firm.
And neither do the vast majority of us.
Mac Secrest demonstrates that we all have the potential of being heroic by being smart … by being caring and thoughtful … by “fighting” with our hearts and our minds … by being an honest, dependable parent, spouse, friend, worker … by doing the right thing.
Because if you do those things, then you, too, will be “set apart” … in the best sense of that term.

English, Bella. (2010). Between father and friend: A beloved uncle’s passing leads to consideration of the important role such relatives can play. The Boston Globe. Monday, June 21, 2010, Edition: 3, Section: G, page 23.
Secrest, Andrew McDowd. (2004). Curses and Blessings: Life and Evolution in the 20th Century South. Bloomington, Indiana: Author House.
_________ . (March 17, 1994). Reminiscences and recollections—Both sides now—1954-1994. A speech given to the Cheraw, S.C. chapter of the NAACP.


The author would like to thank David K. Secrest, Molly Secrest, Shannon A. Justice, and Bella English for their important contributions to this article. In addition, the author thanks Charles S. Johnson, III for the opportunity to publish this piece in SOUTHERN CHANGES.

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