McCray’s influence was felt beyond the newsroom in breaking new political ground for black South Carolinians. As cofounder in 1944 of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the first black Democratic Party in the South, McCray joined those who protested the national Democratic Party’s tolerance of unfair treatment of black South Carolinians.

Journalist, civil rights activist. Born in Youngstown, Florida, on August 25, 1910, McCray was the eldest of seven children born to Donald Carlos McCray and Rachel Rebecca Montgomery. At age six, McCray moved with his family to the all-black community of Lincolnville, near Charleston. He attended graded school in Ladson, graduated head of his class from Lincolnville Graded School, and was valedictorian of the class of 1931 at Avery Institute in Charleston. In 1935 McCray earned a chemistry degree from Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama.

Before he began a distinguished career of journalistic and social activism, McCray worked for the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co., the nation’s oldest and largest black-owned life insurance company. A love of writing and a sense of social responsibility drew McCray into journalism. He first served as city editor of the Charleston Messenger from 1935 to 1938. In 1939 he started his own newspaper, the Charleston Lighthouse, which was later named the Carolina Lighthouse to reflect McCray’s desire to publish a paper with statewide influence. Two years later McCray took over the People’s Informer, a newspaper printed in Sumter by the Reverend E. A. Parker. Setting up operations in Columbia, McCray published the first edition of the Lighthouse and Informer on December 7, 1941.

With its motto of “Shedding Light for a Growing Race,” the Lighthouse and Informer fearlessly took on South Carolina’s white power structure. Unlike most black newspapers of its day, the Lighthouse and Informer gave its readers political commentary, society news, entertainment, and sports. But most of all, it carried news about black people from around the United States and the world. Before ceasing publication in 1954, the Lighthouse and Informer had become the state’s largest and most politically charged black weekly. McCray’s aggressive style often placed him at odds with white society. In October 1949 McCray reported that an alleged rape of a white woman by a black man was in fact consensual sex. A white reporter, independently of McCray, made the same accusation. Both men were subsequently charged with criminal libel. While the white reporter was never brought to trial, McCray was convicted and served two months on a chain gang. While McCray served his time, his newspaper continued to publish, and he even penned a column critical of the judge who sentenced him. After the Lighthouse and Informer closed in 1954, McCray edited regional editions of some of America’s most prominent black newspapers, including the Afro-American Newspapers (1954–1960), the Pittsburgh Courier (1960– 1962), the Chicago Defender (1962–1963), and the Atlanta Daily World (February–September 1964).

McCray’s influence was felt beyond the newsroom in breaking new political ground for black South Carolinians. As cofounder in 1944 of the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP), the first black Democratic Party in the South, McCray joined those who protested the national Democratic Party’s tolerance of unfair treatment of black South Carolinians. He chaired the Progressive Democratic delegations that challenged the seating of delegates to the Democratic National Conventions in 1944, 1948, and 1956.

McCray ended his full-time journalism career in September 1964 when he joined the staff at Talladega College, where he served in a series of posts, including director of public relations. That same year he married Carrie Allen, who had met McCray when they were students at Talladega. All the while McCray continued to write, providing columns for the Charleston Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, and View South, a monthly magazine in Orangeburg. Allen University in Columbia and Coastal Baptist Institute awarded McCray honorary doctorate degrees. In 1998 he was posthumously inducted into the University of South Carolina College of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Diamond Circle, which honors extraordinary contributions to the profession. McCray died on September 15, 1987, in Sylacauga, Alabama. He was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Talladega.

Daniel, Pete. Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Egerton, John. Speak Now against the Day: The Generation before the Civil Rights Movement in the South. New York: Knopf, 1994.

Greenberg, Jack. Crusaders in the Courts. New York: BasicBooks, 1994.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title McCray, John Henry
  • Author Herb Frazier
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/mccray-john-henry/
  • Access Date December 11, 2019
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 8, 2016
  • Date of Last Update March 10, 2017