Charles McDew, 79, Tactician for Student Civil Rights Group, Dies

Charles McDew joined a celebrity fund-raiser for SNCC hosted by the singer and actor Theodore Bikel in 1963. From left, Ivanhoe Donaldson, Mr. McDew, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the singer Nina Simone, Mr. Bikel and the civil rights leader James Forman.

Charles McDew, whose three arrests in two days as a college student for violating South Carolina’s forbidding racial codes transformed him into a civil rights pioneer, died on April 3 in West Newton, Mass. He was 79.

The cause was a heart attack he had while visiting his longtime partner, Beryl Gilfix, for the Passover holiday, his daughter, Eva Goodman, said. Mr. McDew, who had converted to Judaism, lived in St. Paul.

In 1960, just months after those three arrests, Mr. McDew, as a college freshman from Ohio, became a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a civil rights group dedicated to direct action but nonviolent tactics in fighting for racial justice.

From later that fall until 1963, he was the organization’s second chairman, serving between Marion Barry, who went on to become the mayor of Washington, D.C., and John Lewis, who was later elected to Congress from Georgia.

In the early 1960s, a growing number of audacious adolescents and young adults gravitated to S.N.C.C. (or Snick, as it was popularly called) because they were disenchanted with traditional rights groups.

Mr. McDew was instrumental in organizing these activists into vigorous grass-roots field operations in the Deep South. They engaged in sit-ins and other protests, but also looked beyond desegregation to voting rights as the ultimate vehicle for achieving equal opportunity.

“Too many of the ‘freedom riders’ don’t think beyond integration,” Mr. McDew once lamented. “But men ought not to live and die for just washing machines and big television sets.”

In a statement issued after his death, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People credited Mr. McDew with having played “a central role in mobilizing young people across the South at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.”

As an eighth-grader, he had demonstrated against restraints on the religious freedom of Amish students in his hometown, Massillon, Ohio, but he had never been south of Columbus and had no aspirations to civic engagement, he said. A standout athlete in high school, he figured on oneday playing football professionally and later retiring to run a liquor store or a used car lot.

That plan changed when his parents sent him to the historically black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. Within months he had earned a reputation as a gutsy young Northerner who took no guff. After his first arrests, S.N.C.C. recruited him to be a tactician for the group.

He later recalled their impassioned internal debates. After a Mississippi sheriff had beaten a S.N.C.C. leader, Mr. McDew said, he and his colleagues contemplated making a citizens’ arrest.

“The question of how we would do this — we had no arms — and where we would take him if we did arrest him was not easily answered,” he told David Halberstam in “The Children” (1998), his book on the civil rights era. “Did we put him in his own jail? They were great philosophical discussions — Camus would have been proud.”

Tom Hayden, the former California assemblyman who drafted the manifesto for the New Left activist group Students for a Democratic Society, met Mr. McDew at a retreat in 1962. Mr. Hayden described him as a “combination of intellectual and jock, possessed of an absolutely arrogant fearlessness.”

In the summer of 1960, Mr. McDew and several other students were arrested trying to desegregate a five-and-dime Kress lunch counter and wound up in the Orangeburg jail.

Credit...Mississippi Department of Archives and History

While fellow protesters outside sang the national anthem, he poured out his heart on brown paper towels.

“We who are in here do believe that we shall overcome and the truth will make us free,” he wrote, as quoted in “Toward the Meeting of the Waters” (2008), an anthology about the civil rights movement in South Carolina, “and I’m trying very, very hard also to believe that this is the home of the brave and the free.”

Charles Frederick McDew was born in Massillon, about 55 miles south of Cleveland, on June 23, 1938. His father, James, had taught chemistry in South Carolina but as a black was unable to get a job in the Ohio schools; he went to work in the steel mills. His mother, the former Eva Stephens, was a nurse.

His parents persuaded Charles to attend South Carolina State College, his father’s alma mater, instead of attending the University of Michigan, where he had hoped to play football.

His first semester in Orangeburg went well, until he was driving back to campus with a classmate after Thanksgiving.

Stopped by a police officer, Mr. McDew failed to show proper deference (he neglected to say “sir,” he said) and was struck by the officer. Mr. McDew hit him back, and a fight ensued. (“Mind you, this is before the nonviolent civil rights struggle,” he said.) He wound up in jail with a broken arm and jaw.

Taking a train back to college, he was arrested again after refusing to sit in a baggage car designated for blacks.

“It seems that on every car, on every train in the South — this is in 1959 — there was one car on the train for black people, the car right behind the engines, where the soot and dust would come through,” Mr. McDew told a Smithsonian Institution oral history project in 2011. “And when that was filled, you’d sit in the baggage car. I said: ‘No, no, no, sport. Not for my little 10 dollars and 50 cents do I ride with suitcases and mangy dogs. I don’t do baggage cars. And there are plenty of seats right here, and I’m having one of them,’ and sat down.”

When he arrived in Orangeburg, he was arrested yet again after taking a shortcut though a whites-only public park.

“So, I’d been arrested for the third time in two days,” he said, “and that sort of started it.”

By February 1960, civil rights sit-ins had begun at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Mr. McDew, whose reputation as a committed fighter for the cause preceded him, left college to become a full-time spokesman for S.N.C.C., which was organizing at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.

The group recruited local coordinators in an organic campaign that mounted a series of nonviolent “jail no bail” acts of civil disobedience. But by the early 1970s, S.N.C.C. had largely disbanded.

Mr. McDew earned a bachelor’s degree in 1967 from Roosevelt University in Chicago. He later worked as a teacher, labor organizer, manager of antipoverty programs and community activist in Washington, Boston and San Francisco.

He had recently retired from Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis, where he taught African-American history.

His marriage to Deborah Francine Davidson ended in divorce. In addition to his partner, Ms. Gilfix, and his daughter, Eva, he is survived by two brothers, Eric and Mark.

Mr. McDew converted to Judaism after being denied admission to a white Christian church in the South in the 1960s, leading his fellow S.N.C.C. leader, Bob Moses, to describe him as “a black by birth, a Jew by choice and a revolutionary by necessity.”

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