Born on 23 June 1938 in Massillon, Ohio, Charles Frederick McDew moved to the South when he enrolled at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg. During his first semester, he was arrested several times for failing to comply with Jim Crow laws, and he converted to Judaism after being denied admittance to a white Christian church. Inspired by the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, he began leading a local sit-in movement.
In April 1960 McDew helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The following year SNCC activists met in Atlanta for the organization’s second conference and decided to take a more active role in the struggle for civil rights. McDew was elected SNCC’s chair, a position he held until 1964, during which time he inaugurated the practice of hiring field secretaries to go into communities to establish local leadership and register African American voters.
To register voters and desegregate public facilities throughout the South, SNCC members turned their attention to Mississippi. McDew traveled across the state to register voters, working in Greenwood, Natchez, and McComb, among other communities. In 1961 McDew participated in a student-led march to McComb’s city hall, protesting Brenda Travis’s expulsion from high school and the murder of Herbert Lee. Along with other protesters, McDew was beaten and arrested for breach of the peace and for contributing to the delinquency of minors. While out on bond, McDew and other SNCC organizers set up the Nonviolent High of Pike County, where he taught history to students who were boycotting the public high school. The new school closed when the SNCC organizers went on trial, and McDew and others were convicted and sentenced to between four and six months in jail.
In 1962 McDew and Bob Zellner, another SNCC worker, left McComb to visit Dion Diamond, a Freedom Rider who was in jail in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana. McDew and Zellner were arrested and kept in isolation for four weeks. Though initially they were not told the charges against them, they were later accused of criminal anarchy. The charges ultimately were dropped.
Acutely aware of the violence and injustice civil rights workers and local residents were facing, McDew repeatedly requested federal intervention in Mississippi to protect workers and citizens trying to register to vote as well as US Justice Department investigations of murders and attacks on civil rights workers.
McDew subsequently returned to school, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Chicago’s Roosevelt University in 1964. Between 1965 and 1980 he served as the director of community service organizations in Washington, D.C.; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Jacksonville, Florida; and Minneapolis. He has also taught civil rights and African American history at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis and served as a guest lecturer at Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Virginia, and numerous historically black colleges and universities.
Chuck McDew died in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2018.
- Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)
- Charles McDew website, charlesmcdew.com
- Clayborne Carson, In Struggle: SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960s (1981)
- John Dittmer, Local People: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi (1994)
- Charles M. Payne, I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (1995)
- Howard Zinn, SNCC: The New Abolitionists (2002)