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NY Times, April 15, 2018
Charles McDew, 79, Tactician for Student Civil Rights Group, Dies
By SAM ROBERTS
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
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.”
Tom Hayden described him as a “combination of intellectual and jock,
possessed of an absolutely arrogant fearlessness.”
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
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.
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
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
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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