Meet our 2021
Hall of Fame Recipient
John Henry McCray
John Henry McCray was a South Carolina journalist and civil/political rights activist. He was arguably the Palmetto State’s most important Black journalist, and his weekly newspaper, the Lighthouse and Informer, one of the most progressive. His career in journalism ranks among the worthiest in South Carolina history.
Sid Bedingfield, author of Newspaper Wars, said McCray’s reporting “knitted together a fractured and despairing African American community and offered hope for the future. Like any good community newspaper, the Lighthouse and Informer provided a sense of connection and engagement; it encouraged readers to imagine themselves as part of a larger community struggling together for a better tomorrow.”
The Lighthouse and Informer called aggressively and repeatedly for racial equality. From the beginning, it made its political intentions clear – to inform and mobilize the Black community and bring together people “interested in making South Carolina the democratic community of all races working together for our mutual growth and betterment.”
Born in Florida in 1910, McCray moved with his family to the all-Black community of Lincolnville, SC, at age six. He was valedictorian of the class of 1931 at Avery Institute in Charleston. In 1935, McCray earned a chemistry degree from Talladega College in Alabama.
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 newspaper with statewide influence. Two years later McCray took over the Sumter Informer. Setting up operations in Columbia, he published the first edition of the Lighthouse and Informer on December 7, 1941.
With its motto “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, it gave its readers political commentary, society news, entertainment and sports. But most of all, it carried news about Black people from South Carolina, 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.
An outspoken critic of racial injustice, McCray was a man ahead of his time. Through his tireless labor as an editor, journalist and activist, he helped end a discriminatory primary system in South Carolina that disenfranchised African American voters; combatted segregation in S.C. schools and businesses; and, in the case of Isaac Woodard, broke a story about police brutality that brought national attention to the issue and led President Truman to form the first presidential committee on civil rights.
“I love The Lighthouse,” McCray said in a speech in 1945. “We don’t publish it to make money. We publish it so our people can have a voice and some means of getting along together.”
In 1950, McCray and a white Associated Press reporter were indicted on charges of criminal libel in a case centered on their accounts of a rape accusation. Backed by AP’s resources, the white reporter’s case was dismissed without trial, but McCray pled guilty rather than facing an all-white jury. He was convicted and served two months on a chain gang. McCray and his allies believed his unstinting support of the Briggs v. Elliott school integration case prompted a frustrated administration to pursue charges against him.
While McCray served his time, his newspaper continued to publish, and he even penned a column critical of the judge who sentenced him.
In 1954, just a few months after the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, the Lighthouse and Informer went out of business and sold its press for $638 to cover back taxes. The newspaper’s precarious finances and McCray’s personal debt incurred during his imprisonment ultimately forced the Lighthouse and Informer to shutter.
After the paper closed, McCray edited regional editions of some of America’s most prominent Black newspapers, including the Baltimore Afro-American (1954–1960), the Pittsburgh Courier (1960– 1962), the Chicago Defender (1962–1963) and the Atlanta Daily World (1964).
McCray’s influence was felt beyond the newsroom in breaking new political ground for Black South Carolinians. As co-founder 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 1964 when he joined the staff at Talladega College in Alabama. He continued to write columns for The Charleston Chronicle, a weekly newspaper, and View South, a monthly magazine in Orangeburg.
Allen University 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.
S.C. Journalism Hall of Fame
The S.C. Journalism Hall of Fame was established in 1973 to recognize and honor men and women who have excelled in their craft and made significant contributions to journalism and their communities. Only 74 newspaper journalists – from Colonial days to the present – have been chosen by their peers for recognition. Learn more.