The South and Southern journalism have lost another legendary figure: A.M. “Mac” Secrest, a courageous small town newspaper publisher who stood up for decency when racial tensions in the region were at their peak.
Mac Secrest’s courage in fighting racial segregation was beyond dispute. He was often opinionated and frequently outspoken, and he relished a good argument. But he was also an immensely engaging figure who was loved by many and tolerated even by many of the people who fiercely disagreed with him.
The obituary below, prepared by his son David K. Secrest, a long-time reporter and editor, tells more of Mac’s story:
Andrew M. Secrest
A.M.“Mac” Secrest, who crusaded against segregation as a small-town newspaper publisher in South Carolina in the 1950s and ‘60s and later served as a federal mediator in the Deep South during civil rights conflicts in the mid-‘60s, died early Saturday in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Secrest, 86, died at University of North Carolina Memorial Hospital after complications from surgery 18 days earlier for throat cancer.
As owner, publisher and editor of The Cheraw Chronicle beginning in 1953, Secrest was a consistent critic of the “massive resistance” strategy employed by many opponents of racial desegregation, after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
“Despite harassment that included threats to him and his family, buckshot through the windows of his home and menacing signs placed in his yard late at night, Secrest steadfastly maintained his opposition to discriminatory practices advanced by [U.S.] Sen. Strom Thurmond [of South Carolina] and other segregationists of the era,” according to information printed in the program for his enshrinement in the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame in 2007.
Veteran journalist Hank Klibanoff, whose book, “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation,” co-written with Gene Roberts, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history, praised Secrest as “a rarity whose courageous editorial voice in the 1950s and 1960s revealed there were cracks in the bulwark of the segregationist South where rational and progressive thinking could survive.”
In the mid-1960s, Secrest worked as a federal mediator with the Washington-based Community Relations Service, first in the U.S. Department of Commerce, then in the Department of Justice, during the civil rights struggle and voting rights marches in the Deep South in such places as Selma, Ala., Pascagoula, Miss., and Bogalusa, La.
He and other mediators would negotiate with such civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young and Hosea Williams and local community leaders on one side and Selma Mayor Joe Smitherman, Sheriff Jim Clark and members of the white establishment on the other.
According to the Journalism Hall of Fame program, “Secrest served as co-chair of the task force that led to the formation” of the CRS “and represented the agency in the racial struggles in Selma, Ala., in 1965, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and 1966.”
Earlier, Secrest had won the Hillman Prize for newspaper journalism in 1957 for editorials on civil rights, the same year as Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette and a year before Ralph McGill of The Atlanta Constitution won the same prize.
Secrest won a Nieman Fellowship to Harvard University for 1960-61 “for his journalistic integrity and his courageous commitment to equality between the races.”
Klibanoff said in an e-mail: “Secrest ran a gutsy weekly newspaper … that had 3,000 subscribers who received a paper crowded and cluttered with stories and opinions. Secrest, who put photographs of African-American servicemen on his front page in violation of newspaper norms, editorially challenged segregationist Southern editors who fiercely advocated massive resistance, upheaval and opposition to the law.
“Aside from the futility of their hysteria, Secrest argued, they were lighting tinder that could start a fire that would soon run out of control.
“He was, of course, right. When it was easier just to stay silent, Secrest accused his brothers inside the fraternity of southern newspaper editors of failing to meet the standards of professional responsibility, and of risking the protections they were granted by the Constitution.
“Remarkably, he held the paper together for 15 years,” Klibanoff said. “Even more remarkably, by remaining civil and not descending to personal attacks, Secrest held the respect of the editors with whom he battled.”
In his self-published memoir in 2004, Secrest wrote of his newspaper experience in Cheraw, S.C.: “While the Chronicle ultimately garnered its fifteen minutes of fame – or infamy – from its stance on race relations, it was equally noted at home for its local news coverage and community service, irrespective of race. The challenge was how to cover the news fairly and accurately and still survive. Supposedly, nothing ever happens in a small town. As it turned out, everything happened in this small town, and people, often already clued in, would read the local newspaper to see how much the editor dared to print.”
After selling the Chronicle, he taught journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for five years. He moved to North Carolina Central University in Durham in 1976 to help establish its Department of Communications and worked there for nine years until he retired.
From before their wedding in 1948, Mac and Ann Secrest were passionate about boxers and owned a succession of eight of them through the decades. His other interests included Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, chocolate, Bette Davis films and Duke basketball. He developed a friendship with Cheraw native and jazz immortal Dizzy Gillespie.
“Mac was brilliant and thoughtful,” said Keith Graham, a former student of Secrest at UNC, whose own journalism career included more than 25 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he was international editor and book editor, among other assignments. “As a teacher, he was kinder than most and genuinely interested in his students. He was really a courageous figure in the South and in Southern journalism.
“Being an advocate for civil rights and civil liberties in his era was tough for anyone, but it was a lot tougher for a small-town newspaperman. But Mac never seemed to view himself as any special kind of hero. I think he just tried to be decent and true to himself.
“And he had a great sense of humor. His popular culture course at UNC quickly became a campus legend because he was an entertaining, if sometimes eccentric, lecturer who seemed to be interested in everything. He wore his learning — and his brave stands — as lightly as anyone I have known. He was fun to be around.
“I was one of many former students who were lucky enough to have him as a mentor.”
Andrew McDowd Secrest Jr. was born Sept. 15, 1923 in Monroe, N.C., the only son and youngest of three children of Andrew M. “Dowd” Secrest and Lessie Covington Secrest. A twin brother died in childbirth.
He followed his older sisters, Mary Covington Secrest and Lillian Asbury Secrest, to Duke University, where he was a graduate in the class of 1944, with one of three degrees he earned from Duke, including a Ph.D in history in 1972.
During World War II, he served in the North Atlantic as an officer aboard the U.S.S. Hammann, a destroyer escort.
After the war and after his 1948 wedding to the former Ann Louise Eastman of Concord, N.H., whom he met in Saranac Lake, N.Y., Secrest worked for newspapers in New York state and in North Carolina, including The Laurinburg Exchange and The Charlotte News.
In 1953, he bought The Chronicle in Cheraw, S.C., where he lived until 1969, except for stints in Cambridge, Mass., in 1960-1961, and Northern Virginia, 1964-66. Over the past 41 years, the Secrests lived in Chapel Hill or Carrboro, the last 13 years at the Carolina Meadows retirement community near Chapel Hill.
Secrest is survived by his wife of nearly 62 years, Ann Louise Eastman Secrest of Chapel Hill; two children, son David K. Secrest of Atlanta and daughter Mary Ann “Molly” Secrest of Westborough, Mass.; daughter-in-law Leslie Hall Fuller “Mindy” Secrest; son-in-law Lawrence Howard Katz; five grandchildren, Richard Phillips “Phil” Secrest, Mary Elizabeth Fuller “Liz” Secrest and Catherine Ann Simmons Secrest, all of Atlanta; Marion Phillips Secrest Katz of Crookston, Neb., and Abraham Alexander Secrest Katz of Westborough, Mass., currently in Alexandria, Egypt; eight nieces and nephews; 11 grand-nieces and -nephews; and six great-grand-nieces.
Two other children died earlier: Andrew M. Secrest III in childbirth in 1949 and Andrew Phillips “Phil” Secrest because of complications from leukemia at age 21 in 1973.
Family and friends are planning a memorial service for May 22.
In lieu of flowers, contributions could be made to a branch of the leukemia society.