COLUMN: An editorial from 58 years ago
I drove home from Graniteville to Anderson Oct. 9 in a haze of nostalgia. I had just attended one of the cookouts Herbert Padgett puts on for old-timers who attended Graniteville High School.
There I encountered some old schoolmates – Patsy Johnson Bell, who was the society editor of the Rock Log, the high school paper I edited; Lois Padgett, whose sister Jean roundly bested me in the local spelling bee; Jimmy Carpenter, the school’s all-round athlete in my day; Bobbie Jean Yaun Padgett, Herb’s wife, who once rode the Breezy-Hill school bus with me.
When I got home, I went straight to a stack of Rock Logs that Lecil Cushman, the faculty sponsor, had entrusted to me before her death. And there I found the editorial that had existed for 58 years on the fringes of my memory.
It was amateurishly written, and, had it crossed my desk 50 years later, I would have subjected it to severe criticism. In the first place, it declined to take a position on an “often-debated subject,” whereas a good editorial takes a solid stand.
The “often-debated subject” was segregation in the public schools, and the editorial, after mustering dubious arguments, concluded lamely: “Mixed schools had best be postponed until the South is mature enough to accept them.”
But to judge the editorial fairly, you’d have to consider the audience toward which it was aimed: a textile town of 4,500 people in segregated South Carolina. You’d have to consider the date: Feb. 18, 1954 – three months before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its unanimous decision declaring racially segregated schools to be unconstitutional.
And you’d have to consider the publication: a student newspaper in a small high school, fortunate enough to have the presses of the Aiken Standard & Review nearby to print it every month.
The editorial, after paying the obligatory homage to John C. Calhoun, quoted the state’s most renowned statesman as calling slavery “a good, a positive good!”
Then it stated:
“We refuse to apply this statement either to slavery or to segregation.”
The writer maintained that “with two state-supported public school systems, the cost of upkeep will be greater.” Without supplying figures, he challenged readers to “look at the cost of running South Carolina’s schools before the present building boom.” Gov. James F. Byrnes had instituted a program of improving the state’s “colored” schools in an effort to satisfy the Supreme Court’s 58-year-old criterion of “separate but equal.”
“Then add to that,” it continued, “the expense of keeping two school systems of the same educational standard, which we have not done in the past, in pace with the rest of the nation, paying both white and colored teachers the same salaries, which must be sufficiently high to keep the best teachers we can afford.”
The writer also questioned whether, in the face of “Russian lies to the contrary,” the United States could uphold its defining principle of “equal rights for all mankind” while maintaining segregated schools.
The editor addressed the contention that “Whites and Negroes just don’t think alike.”
“If this is true,” he argued, “then perhaps it’s high time they did. Educating them together will help this, we must admit.”
Then, noting that the black population was growing faster than the white, he asserted: “It is entirely possible that the Negroes will outnumber the whites in the next few years. With the Negro possessing the right to vote, he would then find himself in the position of dictating to the white voters, much as the same whites monopolize the voting today. The Negro bloc vote is increasing in power and importance. We must educate him to use it wisely, and with the cooperation and understanding of the white race.”
“Segregation, of course, has its advantages,” the writer conceded. “It puts the student in the familiar environment of his own race, the race he has grown up with. It also prevents any violence that might result from continuing prejudices held by either race toward the other.”
But, it concluded, “As a practicality, it simply will not be accepted by the people of the South for the next decade, and the best thing the Supreme Court, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Negro Race as a whole can do is to realize and accept this fact.”
With 58 years of hindsight, one must conclude that the editor was correct: Desegregation would not be accepted by the people of the South for the next decade. In another half-century, maybe. His predictions of violence were sadly born out at Little Rock, New Orleans, Selma, Birmingham, and in Orangeburg.
I marvel now that even this watered-down opinion piece made it into print. I think of Lecil Cushman, the faculty sponsor of the school newspaper, a vivacious woman who had worked as a police reporter for the Columbia Record during World War II and was married to Edward C. Cushman Jr., a representative in the state legislature. I think of L.M. Togneri, the school superintendent, a scholarly man who always seemed to approach issues with logic and sanity. Either of them could have quashed it, and would have been applauded for doing so.
This editorial, unlike others the newspaper ran, bore the writer’s name at the bottom. That fixed responsibility on him, not the school.
The name: Gene Owens.
The editorial failed to win a place in the statewide scholastic press competition, but it did earn a letter of rebuttal from an editor on one of the state’s small dailies.
I still cringe at the juvenile rhetoric, the patronizing tone and the inadequacies of the arguments.
But I’m proud of its underlying principles, proud of the faculty that let it get into print and proud of the community that tolerated it without running me out of town.
Readers may reach Owens through email at WadesDixieco@AOL.com.
Gene Owens is a retired newspaper editor and columnist who graduated from Graniteville High School and now lives in Anderson.