Editor’s note: Both as part of our continuing coverage of the January Metropolis of the Month Columbia, S.C. and as a nod to the Martin Luther King holiday, University of Minnesota Professor of Journalism, Sid Bedingfield provides an account of how the Black press in Columbia and the state more broadly, proved integral to the burgeoning civil rights movement in mid-century S.C.
By Sid Bedingfield
South Carolina’s rich history of African American journalism dates back to Reconstruction, when Rev. Richard Harvey Cain launched the Missionary Record and declared it to be “steeped in the spirit of black independence.” Cain had been sent to Charleston to revive the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, which had been banned in South Carolina since the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion of 1822. Cain added a second newspaper, the South Carolina Leader, in 1872, and he used the secular journal to propel his successful campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that year.
By the turn of the twentieth century, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman and his white supremacist allies had imposed the terror of Jim Crow rule in the state. The few black newspapers that survived tempered their voices and embraced the cautious strategy of Booker T. Washington. From his base at the Tuskegee Institute, Washington used his fundraising prowess with white philanthropists to develop a political network to empower his supporters in the black community and to punish those who dissented. As his biographer, Louis R. Harlan noted, Washington used his wellspring of white financial donations “to buy black newspapers and bend their editorials to his viewpoint, to control college professors and presidents . . . to infiltrate the leading church denominations and fraternal orders.”
In Columbia, Rev. Richard Carroll’s Plowman and J.A. Roach’s Southern Indicator received financial support from Washington’s so-called “Tuskegee Machine.” In return, the two South Carolina editors carried Washington’s message of racial uplift and political accommodation across the state. “When the white man uplifts himself,” Carroll wrote at the time, “he will be followed by the Negro at a respectful distance, but when he lowers himself to the plane of the Negro, the Negro will get out his place and trouble will be brewed.”
Yet both Carroll and Roach came to symbolize black ambivalence toward this accommodationist strategy. By World War I, when black activists launched the first NAACP branch in Columbia, both editors had dropped their obsequious tone and begun to challenge the white supremacist Democrats who ruled the state. It was time for blacks “to come into their own” and demand better schools, better wages, and better legal protection, Carroll said. Roach’s Indicator became a close ally of the NAACP in Columbia.
By the mid-1920s, that brief stirring of African American activism had been crushed by a white backlash that included mob violence and economic retribution. The NAACP branches grew mostly dormant, despite the best efforts of a few stalwart holdouts. One of those, attorney Nathaniel Frederick, launched the Palmetto Leader, and used it to expose lynching in the state and to call for a federal anti-lynching law.
When the Depression arrived, Frederick’s newspaper toned down its editorial voice to appease white supremacists and to preserve what little advertising it had from white businesses. By the time of Frederick’s death in 1938, the newspaper had devolved into a church and society paper that rarely mentioned civil rights or political concerns.
Angered by this turn of events, Columbia activist Modjeska Monteith Simkins looked for a new voice that could rally black support for the NAACP in South Carolina. Emboldened by Roosevelt’s New Deal, Simkins and a handful of activists searched for what she called a “fighting news organ” that would join forces with the civil rights organization.
At the time, John Henry McCray had launched the Carolina Lighthouse in Charleston and was stirring up trouble with his aggressive reporting on police brutality and misconduct. McCray was a young college graduate who had returned to the Lowcountry in 1935. He had “a knack for newspaper writing,” Simkins said, and McCray seemed to be fearless. In Charleston, city officials had detained him briefly for his coverage disputing rape allegations lodged against a black doctor in nearby McCellanville, and they had raised the fee for his business license an effort to shut down his newspaper.
Simkins and her NAACP allies persuaded McCray to merge his paper with the smaller Sumter Informer and move the operation to Columbia. In December 1941, the Lighthouse and Informer hit the streets for the first time.
In the early 1940s, McCray had a close working relationship with C.A. Scott, editor and publisher of the Atlanta Daily World, the only daily black newspaper in the country. But McCray’s strategy for confronting white supremacy differed markedly from Scott’s cautious approach. In 1942, for example, McCray published an exposé on the treatment of African American prisoners who worked on chain gangs in South Carolina. When angry white leaders in Columbia accused the newspaper of damaging race relations, a worried McCray wrote to Scott for advice on how to respond. The Atlanta publisher encouraged McCray “to take a more positive attitude rather than a challenging attitude” when dealing with “prejudiced white people.” McCray rejected Scott’s advice and delivered a defiant response to his white critics. The Lighthouse and Informer “is published by and for colored citizens,” McCray wrote. “They alone will determine what is good or bad for them.”
McCray’s newspaper lasted until 1954, and it helped nurture an extraordinary–and often overlooked–decade of African American political assertiveness in the South. NAACP membership in South Carolina increased from fewer than eight hundred in the mid-1930s to more than fourteen thousand in 1948, with a central state conference of branches coordinating activity across the organization’s eighty-six chapters. McCray used his newspaper to launch a political organization, the Progressive Democratic Party, and to challenge the legality of the state’s all-white Democratic Party. The PDP boosted black voter registration from fewer than four thousand in the early 1940s to more than seventy thousand by the end of the decade.
The new movement won a string of victories during the 1940s. Black South Carolinians overturned the state’s system of unequal pay for black teachers, won the right to participate in Democratic Party primaries, influenced the outcome of a U.S. Senate election, and filed a school desegregation suit in rural Clarendon County that would lead to Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case outlawing segregation in public schools.
McCray’s newspaper stood at the center of this new black activism. The Lighthouse and Informer rallied support for a direct assault on white supremacy and demonized those in the black community who refused to join the fight. But the young editor paid a price for his success. His newspaper work cost him his marriage, sent him to jail for two months for criminal libel, and eventually forced him to leave South Carolina to look for work. His relationship with Simkins deteriorated into an ugly feud over political strategy and financial issues in the 1950s, and the two never reconciled.
McCray’s efforts at the Lighthouse and Informer and his work with Simkins and the NAACP would have a lasting impact on his adopted home of Columbia and on his home state. His newspaper helped revive and sustain black activism in South Carolina during a critical period, when the state’s black community was slowly shedding its accommodationist approach to white supremacy but remained uncertain about the merits of direct confrontation. . In the 1940s and early 50s, the newspaper rallied African Americans to support NAACP efforts to challenge Jim Crow rule in court, particularly in the teacher-pay and Clarendon County school desegregation cases, and it was instrumental in helping African Americans gain access to the Democratic Party – the only political party that mattered in what was functionally a one-party state. As one historian put it, the NAACP activists who led the fight in Columbia and across South Carolina in the 1940s served as the “vanguard” of the massive civil rights struggle that would emerge across the South in the following decade.
Sid Bedingfield is an assistant professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota and is the author of Newspaper Wars: Civil Rights and White Resistance in South Carolina, 1935-1965, published in 2017 by the University of Illinois Press.
Photo at top: Looking down Main Street from Skyscaper building, showing State Capitol, Columbia, S.C., U.S.A., Keystone View Company, 1905, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress