Alabama Police confront Selma Marchers in March of 1965. (Federal Bureau of Investigation Photographs, animation courtesy the National Park Service web site)
By Jim Buie
As a government negotiator specializing in civil rights conflicts in the mid-1960s, Mac Secrest helped negotiate peaceful conclusions to tensions between civil rights activists and segregationists, particularly in Selma and Tuskegee, Ala. Characteristically, he did it with humor.
He worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and credits the rapport and trust they quickly established with helping to avert violence.
In his new memoir, Curses and Blessings: LIfe and Evolution in the 20th Century South, Secrest writes that he "had the opportunity to play a small role in an event that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965." As a "conciliator" with the U.S. Community Relations Service, he was assigned to Selma in January of 1965, "in anticipation of racial conflicts soon to surface. My job: to try to ameliorate the rising tensions at the local level...
"At issue were questions of voting restrictions on the minority population, police brutality at the hands of Sheriff Jim Clark's posse, unequal protection of the law, denial of black representation on municipal ruling bodies, and steadfast refusal by an all-white local government to obey provisions of the recently passed Civil Rights Act, especially in the area of public accommodations. There were also issues of separate but unequal schools and the lack of economic opportunity....
“Dr. King voiced a demand for a march on Montgomery to demonstrate the need for a national law to end the systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens. He argued from solid ground. . . .[Alabama Governor] George Wallace refused to issue a permit for the march on Montgomery on the ground of public safety. The Alabama State Highway Patrol, led by Commander Al Lingo, blocked passage across the Edmund Pettus Bridge spanning the Alabama River. . . . Soon the attention of the Lyndon Johnson White House and the Department of Justice was focused on Selma.”
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama
Photograph courtesy of the Alabama Historical Commission
By the time Secrest arrived in Selma, there had already been one police riot. "Riding their horses and cracking their whips like Russian Cossacks on some pogram, [Sheriff Jim Clark's posse] attacked the marchers. Blackjacks came out. So did police dogs. Some cattle prods came into use..."
President Johnson sent Secrest and his boss, Leroy Collins, former governor of Florida and the head of CRS, down to Selma on an Air Force plane, to be greeted by a military honor guard. LBJ's purpose was to send the message that "the Feds are here, and we mean business."
Secrest dined with Dr. King and his assistant, Andrew Young. They established strong rapport, and joked warmly. Knowing that Governor Wallace was a practicing Methodist, Secrest called Kenneth Goodson, Methodist bishop in Birmingham, a North Carolina native, and family friend he had known since childhood, and asked him to meet with Wallace. Goodson met Wallace in the governor's command car across the river, and prayerfully urged him to pull back his troops, let the marchers walk across the bridge, and get control of the Selma posse.
Secrest met with King and other march leaders, including John Lewis, now a congressman from Georgia, and urged them to make a symbolic march across the bridge, stand, make their points, proclaim victory, then quietly turn around without pushing their luck once again with the police. They could then lay plans for a march to Montgomery later in the month.
"Do you really think I ought to do this, Secrest?" King asked. "Yes, I do," Secrest replied. King approved the agreement, as did Wallace, thus averting more bloodshed.
Secrest's role in Selma did not end there. After the national civil rights leaders moved on, local tensions and violence continued. Secrest mediated negotiations between local factions, which usually occurred in the street, "up front and personal."
One hot and humid day, Secrest writes, he was wearing the Fred MacMurray-style toupee that he had purchased in Hollywood to cover his increasingly balding pate. As he argued and negotiated with local leaders, he began to sweat profusely. Kneeling down to make a point on the sidewalk with some chalk, his hair piece slid off his head.
As he reached to grab it, his colleague, Jim Laue, "ever the clown, snatched it away, shouting, 'Oh, oh, what is this? A coon skin? A squirrel tale? Anybody lose something?' And he paraded up and down the battle line, twirling my hair piece as the crowd began to laugh and make catcalls. An unusual but effective way to ease tension and get the negotiation process started again."
The long, irregular hour in Selma, Secrest confesses, led to irregularity and hemorrhoids. He found relief in Preparation H, which he carried in his back pocket. Bending over to give his aching back a rest, "when out popped the tube of Preparation H. Again Laue was too quick for me. He grabbed the container, danced around before the crowd, and shouted, "Oh, look what I've found! Did someone lose this ointment? Anybody in pain and need relief?' Again, tension gave way to laughter. I had long since passed embarrassment. Life everyday was informal and personal. I got my Preparation H back from Jim, stuck it in my pocket and went back to work. Soon, we had reached agreement on the issue of the day...."
“Mac was our best field conciliator, I thought,” Calvin Kytle, who was at that time deputy director of the Community Relations Service, based in Washington, told Valerie Schwartz of the Chapel Hill News. Kytle said that Secrest first came to his attention through his field reports. “They were much more detailed and intense than most field reports,” Kytle said. “He was quiet and dispassionate — except when writing his reports.
“He was remarkably effective in his negotiations. If he had not grown up in the South and been a newspaper editor, I don’t think he would have been as effective.”
- Curses and Blessings: LIfe and Evolution in the 20th Century South, By Andrew McDowd Secrest. Read more, purchase the book.
- We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement: Selma-to-Montgomery March for voting rights ended three weeks--and three events--that represented the political and emotional peak of the modern civil rights movement.
- Voting Rights Acts of 1965.
- Incident at the Edmund Pettus Bridge
- MSNBC series, "Time and Again," focuses on Selma, 1965, including a profile of Sheriff Jim Clark:
- PBS profile of Governor George Wallace, including his actions in Selma in 1965.
- Community Relations Service, the government agency Secrest worked for as a civil rights conciliator.
- Leroy Collins, former governor of Florida. Mac's boss at CRS.
- Web pages on Mac's colleague, Jim Laue, an international leader in the field of conflict resolution.
- Calvin Kytle, who was deputy director of CRS.
- Resolving Racial Conflict: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights, 1964-1989, book by Bertram Levine, which includes a section on Mac Secrest's work in Selma.
- After 36 years in office, Selma mayor voted out (from CNN's archives in 2000).
- Lyndon Johnson White House tapes, regarding Selma.
- PBS site on Selma, including interviews with Andrew Young.
- Kenneth Goodson, the Methodist bishop in Birmingham who convinced Governor Wallace to pull back police from confrontation with demonstrators in Selma.
- "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference," Pulitzer-prize winning book by David Garrow, in which Mac Secrest's role is reported.