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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Marion Wright, March 8, 1978. Interview B-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Developing a sense of racial justice and becoming a leader in the field

Wright recalls how he developed his sense of racial justice and eventually assumed the South Carolina presidency of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, launching a lifetime of activism. He remembers the violent racism of a former employer and his first brush with racial etiquette, when a sister told him he could no longer play with his black friends. These experiences and his natural anti-authoritarianism led him to try to undo segregation.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Marion Wright, March 8, 1978. Interview B-0034. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

How did you happen to become state President of the Interracial Commission?
MARION WRIGHT:
It had existed for a very short while, and I had never attended a meeting. But the President, who was a lawyer named Mr. Beverly Herbert, called me over the phone and wanted to know if I would accept the presidency of the Commission. And I told him without hesitancy that I would. And I was already somewhat known as being a radical on that issue, so he assumed from that fact that I would accept the presidency, which I did.
JACQUELYN HALL:
And had you gotten that reputation mainly because of your activities as a student in your commencement address?
MARION WRIGHT:
I made two or three speeches. I think, looking back on it, I did so as much because of the fact that it gave me a certain fame or notoriety or something of that sort. But I was a solid convert. Dr. Josiah Morse, a professor of philosophy who taught me, was a firm believer in the equality of mankind in general, so I did have a fervor that was sincere. Being a college boy at the time and being seventeen or eighteen years old, the glamour of speaking perhaps influenced me somewhat.
JACQUELYN HALL:
I had the impression from what you said before that those years at college were really the decisive turning point, that you seem to have had fairly conventional views toward race and religion and so on until that college experience.
MARION WRIGHT:
I think that would have been true to a large extent. I saw instances of abuse of blacks which I deeply resented, and to that extent I was in favor of better treatment. An incident that I can recall where my indignation was aroused occurred in the store of a man named Walter Wise at Trenton. I was a clerk there before going to college. And on one occasion the train from the north brought in, among other passengers, a black man who was quite well dressed. There was a connecting line between the train from the north, a smaller line which ran from Aiken to Edgefield. So the northerners who were then making Aiken their point for winter hunting and that kind of thing would bring Negro servants with them, so I'm sure this man had come down in that capacity. The Northerners had to bring their polo ponies, also. This black man had to wait to catch the train to Aiken. There was some delay. He came in from Columbia and had to wait for this small shuttle line that went to Aiken. So he came over to the store and said he would like to wash his hands. We kept a basin in the back of the store, and I got him that basin and some soap and a towel. And about the time that he was performing his ablutions, the owner of the store, Mr. Walter Wise, came in, and went berserk, almost. He grabbed a buggy whip. There was a rack of buggy whips for sale, so he grabbed one of those and shouted something about a "goddam nigger using my washpan" [laughter] and ran the Negro out of the store. I recall distinctly that the man hid behind the Presbyterian Church. Mr. Wise came back and lectured me for a long time about race relations. Finally when the shuttle train came in, going to Aiken, I saw this man creep out and get on that train. This Negro was probably better dressed than any citizen of Trenton, and that probably was one reason for the hostility. [Laughter] He had an air about him that perhaps made you feel uncomfortable in the assumption that you were superior. So this happened in my youth. Then as a small boy I hunted and played with Negroes. That was more or less the custom in the South at that time. I played with them without the slightest self-consciousness on the part of any of us until I reached, I presume, the age of puberty, when my sister called me aside and told me that I must stop that kind of thing, that boys of my age didn't run around with colored boys of that age. I know I resented that. So these things merely mean that I had some feeling of resentment at the way Negroes were treated. I daresay not a person in that community ever thought of a Negro as being a citizen; it was always a master-and-servant relationship, and a very comfortable one for the master, as you may imagine.
JACQUELYN HALL:
It sounds as if you were sort of naturally rebellious, too, in addition to feeling a certain indignation about blacks, that you were a little rebellious toward authority.
MARION WRIGHT:
I think I was born a rebel. It not only showed itself a little bit later in my attitude toward blacks, but my attitude toward the church, also. As would be customary with practically all children at that time, you went to church and joined during some soul-fermenting revival when they had an evangelist there. So I joined under such circumstances at what was known as a protracted meeting. But I left Trenton at age sixteen. The family probably welcomed my going off to college. Then at college I came under the influence of larger personalities than I had met, and a Jewish professor of philosophy who never let his Judaism intrude on his teachings at all. But he fully implanted the idea that what I had theretofore believed, or what people of my circle believed, was fairly primitive. So, in a wrash moment, I wrote the Trenton Methodist Church to take my name off their roll. [Laughter] And I guess they did it.