Why you should care

Because this lesser-known civil rights leader helped lay the groundwork.

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A good 10 years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case, the Supreme Court in 1944 struck down another pernicious plank of formalized racism: the whites-only primary election. In response, South Carolina became a center of African-American political activism — with the first Black-led splinter challenge to the Democratic Party and the first major Black candidate for statewide office in the South since Reconstruction.

Osceola McKaine is hardly a household name, and South Carolina doesn’t hold the same place in civil rights lore of its Deep South neighbors, but the worldly native of Sumter helped pave the way. As he hit the campaign trail, it was outlandish for McKaine to label the nascent civil rights movement “the third American revolution” (the Civil War being the second), but his words proved prescient.

Osceola McKaine

Osceola McKaine (third from right) with the staff of his nightclub in Ghent, Belgium, in the 1930s.

Source Public Domain

Born in 1892, McKaine was eager to ditch the city of a few thousand souls, and left home at age 16 to travel. A merchant ship took him from Savannah to Latin America to Boston. The Army took him to the Philippines, Mexico and then to France during World War I. McKaine made lieutenant and found fuel for his future activism. “They found more acceptance among the French,” University of South Carolina history professor Patricia Sullivan says of McKaine and his fellow Buffalo Soldiers in the all-Black units. “Their treatment in the armed services radicalized a number of them.”

Led by Blacks but open to liberal whites, the new party posed a real challenge to the political structure.

McKaine returned to New York amid the Harlem Renaissance and got to work on civil rights activism, but he wasn’t there long. “Ossie was always a proud, nonconforming person and he just got tired trying to buck Jim Crow all the time, so he looked to Europe,” McKaine’s half brother, Ansley Abraham, said in a 1991 South Carolina Historical Society article by scholar Miles Richards. McKaine wound up in Ghent, Belgium, where he opened a popular nightclub called Mac’s Place. McKaine, who spoke four languages, was able to own a business with white employees — unthinkable in South Carolina at that time — and he built a good life. But when Adolf Hitler invaded, McKaine returned to the U.S. After more than three decades away, he landed back in Sumter.

He picked up his activism once again, working on a campaign with the NAACP to push for pay equity between Black and white teachers. McKaine traveled across the state to survey teachers and to build a legal defense fund. So when the all-white primary was struck down in 1944, he and fellow activists like John Henry McCray — the publisher of influential Black newspaper Lighthouse and Informer — were ready for the fight. When legislators moved to keep the white primary by making the Democratic Party a private club, McKaine and his colleagues took a novel step: They formed the Progressive Democratic Party.

Led by Blacks but open to liberal whites, the new party posed a real challenge to the political structure. The GOP’s Abraham Lincoln–era grip on Blacks was waning, thanks to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, and all of a sudden the African-American vote was important to Democrats. At the 1944 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the Progressive Democrats demanded to be seated in place of South Carolina’s official delegation. They were excluded on a technicality as national Democrats feared a Southern walkout. It was a prelude to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party 20 years later and the racial split that would reshape America’s party politics in the ensuing decades.

That fall, McKaine ran for Senate under the PDP banner. He had little chance, and he knew it, against sitting governor Olin Johnston, whose Democratic primary win meant the general election was but a coronation. But McKaine hit the stump, aiming to broaden the Progressive Democratic base to include poor whites, whom he argued faced the same structural discrimination as Blacks. Officially, he won only 3,214 votes, a fraction of Johnston’s, but fraud and repression likely kept the numbers down. The more important numbers for the long run? Black voter registration jumped from 3,500 to 50,000 in the 1940s, thanks to McKaine and other PDP activists, Sullivan says, who were “on the ground organizing, making people feel change is possible.”

After the campaign, McKaine helped on voter-registration drives for a couple of years before returning to postwar Belgium to try and revive his business in Ghent, where he died in 1955.

But for South Carolina, McKaine had planted a flag for Black leaders to come. Still, it would be another 70 years after McKaine’s run before a Black candidate from the South won a U.S. Senate election: Republican Tim Scott pulled it off in 2014.

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