In 1941 the Palmetto State Teachers’ Association commissioned McKaine to conduct a survey of the salary disparities between white teachers and black teachers. He was instrumental in devising the “Teachers’ Defense Fund,” which collected money to finance the subsequent equal pay litigation. McKaine also was deeply involved in consultations with Thurgood Marshall, the chief national legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Civil rights activist. McKaine was born in Sumter on December 18, 1892, the eldest son of Selena McKaine Abraham. After his graduation from Lincoln Graded School in 1908, he took employment on a merchant freighter bound for the West Indies. In 1914 McKaine enlisted in the U.S. Army, seeing service in the Philippines, Mexico, and as a supply officer in France during World War I. Following his discharge in 1919, McKaine resided in New York City and served as national field secretary of the League for Democracy (LFD), a black veterans’ organization that sought to secure civil rights legislation. He also served as editor for the LFD’s journal, the New York Commoner. With the LFD’s demise in the early 1920s, he quit the Commoner and emigrated from New York to Europe.
McKaine settled in Ghent, Belgium, where he and a partner established a popular supper club known as Mac’s Place. Following the German occupation of Belgium in May 1940, McKaine returned to the United States. After his arrival in Sumter in December, word of his return spread among African American circles in South Carolina. He became a popular lecturer and wrote articles for leading black journals, including the Columbia Palmetto Leader.
In 1941 the Palmetto State Teachers’ Association commissioned McKaine to conduct a survey of the salary disparities between white teachers and black teachers. He was instrumental in devising the “Teachers’ Defense Fund,” which collected money to finance the subsequent equal pay litigation. McKaine also was deeply involved in consultations with Thurgood Marshall, the chief national legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The initial salary-equity lawsuit was won by the black teachers of Charleston in February 1944. This was the first civil rights victory by black South Carolinians in six decades.
Meanwhile, McKaine became associate editor of the Lighthouse and Informer, an important black newspaper edited by John H. McCray. Early in 1944 this paper called for the creation of a black political organization to challenge the control of state politics by white Democrats. This new grouping became the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP). On May 24, 1944, McKaine was the keynote speaker at the PDP’s initial state convention in Columbia. Moreover, he was among eighteen delegates who unsuccessfully challenged the regular state party contingent at the Democratic National Convention that July in Chicago. In August 1944 the PDP ran McKaine for the U.S. Senate against Governor Olin D. Johnston. McKaine was the first black South Carolinian to run for statewide office since Reconstruction. While he was officially accorded only 3,214 votes, election observers believed that McKaine received a much higher tally.
During his last two years in the United States, McKaine continued to work with the PDP, as well as the Lighthouse and Informer. In January 1945 he began service on the Adult Advisory Board for the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC). Later that year he became the first black field agent of the Southern Conference of Human Welfare (SCHW), an interracial civil rights organization operating in the South. He traveled extensively throughout the South promoting SCHW’s activities, especially voter registration campaigns. His last major civil rights activity was planning the SNYC’s youth legislature for October 1946 in Columbia.
In December 1946 McKaine sailed for Europe to resume managing his cabaret, but the club never regained its prewar success. He died in Brussels on November 17, 1955, and was buried in Walker Cemetery, Sumter.
Reed, Linda. Simple Decency & Common Sense: The Southern Conference Movement, 1938–1963. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1991.
Richards, Miles S. “The Eminent Lieutenant McKaine.” Carologue 7 (autumn 1991): 6–7, 14–17.
–––. “Osceola E. McKaine and the Struggle for Black Civil Rights: 1917–1946.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1994.