Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
A Moral Voice For Equality
Margaret Gregg is believed to be the first state employee to publicly challenge South Carolina segregation laws. During a time when female voices were seldom heard in the public arena, she stood for the rights of African Americans. As a result, her livelihood was threatened and her First Amendment rights of free speech and association were denied.
A native of South Carolina and a graduate of Winthrop College, Gregg served as assistant professor of English at her alma mater. During WWII, she served in the U.S. Navy as a WAVE. As early as 1958, she was a member of the newly formed Rock Hill Council on Human Relations, a bi-racial group created to seek peaceful solutions to the contest over basic rights for Blacks that was brewing throughout the South.
By the early 1960s, Rock Hill was an important front in the struggle to integrate restaurants and other public establishments. After nearly a year of protests by students of Friendship Junior College, city and state officials were steadfast in resisting changes to Jim Crow rule. They relied heavily on laws that prohibited trespassing. Businesses that refused to serve Black customers at their lunch counter could order them to leave the premises. If protestors refused to leave, they could be arrested for trespassing.
On Jan. 31, 1961, a group of Friendship students were arrested after being denied service at the lunch counter in the McCrory’s Five and Dime. The Friendship Nine refused to post bail and were sentenced to 30 days hard labor. These 30 days were marked by protests that drew national attention. White political and law enforcement leaders were adamant in their defense of segregation. With few exceptions, members of the White majority who may have sympathized with the protestors were silent.
Into this maelstrom strode Margaret Gregg. On Feb. 10, 1961, The Evening Herald published a letter from Gregg. She relied on moral, democratic and Christian principles to challenge the state’s trespassing laws. She wrote:
"Why is the law invoked against some citizens, but not against others when both groups seek the same service?...Should the freedom of some be a public brand of inferiority for others?...Isn't this application of the law a violation of democracy -- equality before the law, which is very different from social equality? Isn't it also a violation of a cardinal principle of Christianity -- equality before God?...[I]n the final analysis it is we the people who are responsible, through our delegated legislators, for just laws which are equally applied to all citizens. "
Following publication of the letter, Gregg was subjected to vitriolic attacks from White supremacist groups and such powerful political figures as Sen. L. Marion Gressette, chairman of the S.C. Senate’s School Committee. Offered the chance to resign, Gregg refused. Aided by Winthrop President Charles Davis, Gregg was allowed to keep her job in exchange for her promise to disassociate from the Human Relations Council. Despite this, she remained a member of the Human Relations Council for years, though her voice and activism were muted.