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Over his 101 years, Marshall Doswell fought for the disabled, civil rights and civility

Charlotte Observer - 9/16/2022

Marshall Doswell was a tolerant man, friends and relatives say. But there was one thing he wouldn’t stand for.

“His only intolerance was to injustice,” said Carter Doswell, one of his nephews.

Doswell was a longtime Rock Hill resident who worked against racial segregation and on behalf of the disabled. He died on Sept. 8 at age 101.

In his gentle and respectful way, he continually worked to make a difference, according to many who knew him.

As former managing editor of the Rock Hill Evening Herald, he wrote editorials dating back to the 1950s that advocated equality and justice for all citizens, regardless of race. That was despite Jim Crow laws requiring racial segregation across the South.

Friends say that was not the expected path for a man who grew up in the early 1920s in Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy for most of the Civil War.

After graduating from college in 1942, Doswell enlisted in the U.S. Army to serve in World War II. Joining the Signal Corps in the South Pacific, he spent 12-hour shifts sending and receiving Morse code.

After the war, he went to work for a newspaper in Covington, Virginia, where he met his future wife, Gloria. They remained together until her death 65 years later.

He joined the Rock Hill Evening Herald in 1957, a time when conflicts over racial segregation were heating up and Black residents were boycotting the local bus service.

His editorials called for equal opportunity, integration and racial reconciliation — words that were not welcomed by all. In return, he received threatening phone calls and letters from Ku Klux Klan sympathizers who demanded that he stop. But he persisted.

When Black civil rights activists came to Rock Hill in the early 1960s, Doswell and other leaders of Oakland Avenue Presbyterian Church debated whether to allow them to worship there. Some vehemently opposed the idea. But Doswell argued persuasively that the church should welcome them, according to Clarkson McDow, a retired Rock Hill lawyer and a longtime friend.

“Marshall said, “Gentlemen, this is not our church. This is God’s church,’ ” McDow recalled.

Church leaders ultimately agreed with him.

“In his quiet way, he said it was time — time for the segregation and the divisiveness to stop,” said Charlotte psychologist John Simpson, a nephew of Doswell’s.

An energetic public servant

After one of his three daughters was born with Down Syndrome, Doswell began noticing that there were few services available in South Carolina for those with disabilities.

With other civic leaders, Doswell formed York County Special Housing Inc. and obtained a federal grant to build two homes in Rock Hill for people with intellectual disabilities. He served for many years on the York CountyBoard of Disabilities.

Time after time, Doswell led other civic efforts as well. He became president of the Greater Rock Hill Chamber of Commerce in 1961. After Springs Cotton Mills recruited him to establish and head a department of public relations in the early 1960s, he became active in the Public Relations Society of America.

He later chaired the York County Planning Commission and served on the South Carolina State Library Board and the South Carolina Arts Commission. He also served terms as president of the South Carolina Arts Foundation and the Winthrop College Foundation.

“He looked for things that needed doing,” said Julie Royster, a daughter who now lives in Raleigh. “He’d say, ‘You’ve got to make your life count for something. You’ve got to make things better.’ ”

Plenty of accolades came his way. In 1998, S.C. Gov. David Beasley named him to the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the state’s governor. And for his work during the civil rights era, Doswell was named to Rock Hill’s Freedom Walkway in 2018.

Realizing the injustices suffered by Black residents, “he used his influential platform to challenge and address the multiple Civil Rights issues that were exploding throughout the area,” according to that commendation.

Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys helped Doswell celebrate his 100th birthday last year by giving him the key to the city.

“He was certainly a trailblazer,” Gettys said. “He was one of those people who didn’t need to speak because his history spoke for itself.”

‘A real Southern gentleman’

But friends say he was too humble to boast about that sort of thing. Instead, he kept his focus on others. He believed in treating people with decency and respect, even if they didn’t agree with him.

“You didn’t have to think like him or worship like him to be his friend,” said McDow, the former Rock Hill lawyer.

Jim Hoagland, a longtime friend of Doswell’s, worked for him at the Rock Hill Evening Herald in the early 1960s and later went on to win two Pulitzer Prizes for the Washington Post. In journalism and life at large, Hoagland considered Doswell one of his mentors.

“Marshall was a real Southern gentleman in so many ways,” Hoagland said.

Terry Plumb, a former editor of the Rock Hill Herald, described Doswell as “an eminently decent man.”

“He was not a table thumper,” Plumb said. “He was reflective. He’d share his opinions with you. But he would never tell you how to run things.”

Said Simpson, the Charlotte psychologist: “How fortunate I was to be able to say I was related to such a wonderful man.”

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