Aware that many white Democrats in South Carolina opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reelection to a fourth term in 1944, African American activists sought to demonstrate their loyalty to the national party by mobilizing black support for the president.
Aware that many white Democrats in South Carolina opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reelection to a fourth term in 1944, African American activists sought to demonstrate their loyalty to the national party by mobilizing black support for the president. In January 1944 Samuel J. McDonald, Sr., of Sumter proposed the creation of a statewide network of “Fourth Term for Roosevelt Democratic Clubs.” John H. McCray, editor of the Columbia Lighthouse and Informer, an influential black newspaper, endorsed the plan in a February editorial. Within a month a rudimentary network of clubs existed throughout South Carolina, which McCray thought foreshadowed a new black political party. On March 18 McCray ran another editorial proposing the creation of the South Carolina Negro Democratic Party. The following day the Columbia Record, a white newspaper, reprinted this piece and placed it on the Associated Press wire service, giving national exposure to McCray’s proposal.
McCray envisioned an independent party possessing an organizational structure comparable to that of the existing Democratic Party. Consequently, the Negro Democrats’ structural backbone was local clubs, organized by county, situated throughout South Carolina. Although they planned to finance their activities by raising funds in-state, donations also were sought from outside supporters. The initial independent contribution of $5 was made on March 22 by Mrs. Margaret Howe, an elderly white widow from Columbia. She later suggested that the party’s name be changed to the Progressive Democrats, to underscore the goal of achieving an interracial membership. By May 1944 the organization was known formally as the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP).
The PDP convened its first state convention on May 24, 1944, at the Negro Masonic Temple in Columbia. As acting state secretary, McCray presided over 172 delegates from thirty-nine counties. When white Democrats refused to consider an integrated South Carolina delegation at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the PDP chose its own eighteen representatives and two alternates. They were expected to contest the seating of the rival white contingent as the state’s official delegation.
Prior to the convention, national Democratic leaders attempted to dissuade the Progressive Democrats from pursuing their challenge. Progressive Democratic representatives, including McCray, held two meetings in Washington with Robert E. Hannegan, the Democratic Party’s national chairman. On July 17 Hannegan assigned the PDP’s challenge to a special subcommittee. Although complimentary of the Progressive Democratic spokesmen, that panel ruled that the regular white delegation legally represented South Carolina.
Several PDP delegates sought to mount a formal seating challenge. However, McCray and other leaders believed that it was imperative to demonstrate their commitment to Roosevelt’s reelection by not publicly contesting the adverse ruling. Nevertheless, the Progressive Democrats had mounted the first modern, concerted attempt by a southern African American organization to win official recognition at a Democratic National Convention.
In August 1944 the Progressive Democratic State Committee resolved to run Osceola E. McKaine as the PDP candidate in the upcoming U.S. Senate race against Governor Olin D. Johnston, a noted white supremacist. Despite allegations of vote fraud, McKaine was accorded 3,214 votes. But PDP poll watchers around the state claimed that he had actually received a much larger total. Over the next fifteen years the PDP ran African American candidates for various public offices within South Carolina.
In July 1948 the Progressive Democrats sent a delegation of twenty-eight members to seek official representation at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. A bitter fight with the regular white delegates before the Credentials Committee on July 13 lasted nearly five hours. Despite their best oratorical efforts, the Progressive Democrats’ challenge again was thwarted. However, the Progressive Democrats remained fiercely loyal to the national Democrats, repudiating suggestions that they affiliate with Henry A. Wallace’s Progressive Party. They also were among the South Carolina Democratic factions to support President Harry Truman’s 1948 reelection campaign.
During the 1950s the Progressive Democrats experienced a steady erosion in strength, due in part to McCray’s frequent absences from the state. By 1958 the organization had become formally known as the Progressive Democratic Caucus. McCray later claimed that the Progressive Democrats in 1960 had helped carry South Carolina for John F. Kennedy. However, within four years the Progressive Democratic organization had been disbanded.
Frederickson, Kari. The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South, 1932–1968. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Richards, Miles S. “The Progressive Democrats in Chicago, July 1944.”
South Carolina Historical Magazine 102 (July 2001): 219–37.