Charles “Chuck” McDew spent the early 1960s as chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) while the group was engaged in some of its most important civil rights work — advancing the sit-in movement and registering black citizens to vote in the South.
He spent the rest of his life speaking about the struggle so it wouldn’t be forgotten, a mission he deemed as essential as the boots-on-the-ground activism that repeatedly endangered his life as a young man.
“He was a leader at a time when the country needed somebody to stand up … and rail against racism,” said Frank Smith, a fellow SNCC member.
McDew, 79, a former adviser and instructor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, died April 3 of a heart attack in West Newton, Mass.
A native of Massillon, Ohio, McDew wasn’t accustomed to Southern racism and segregation when he entered college in Orangeburg, S.C., in 1959. He wound up in jail three times in two days after fighting with a police officer, refusing to leave a whites-only train car and cutting through a public park. The experience lit a fire in him, said his longtime partner, Beryl Gilfix of West Newton.
“He took it very personally,” Gilfix said. “He said, ‘We’re going to change it or we’ll die trying.’ ”
After leading a sit-in at a local diner, McDew and other student leaders — including Julian Bond and John Lewis — formed SNCC in 1960. He became the group’s second chairman, serving in that position from 1961 to 1963.
Time and again, McDew waded through howling mobs of armed white men, knowing they could kill him with impunity. “Once you accept you’re dead, that’s freeing,” he often said.
And he was cunning, Smith said. McDew managed to take forbidden photographs in jail while visiting detained SNCC members. He smuggled in two cameras, relinquishing a decoy to guards while keeping the real one.
McDew led efforts to register rural black voters in the South, where they had been effectively disenfranchised for years. He and his colleagues lived in “freedom houses,” homes of locals willing to take them in. By age 20, he had been arrested 37 times.
Bond, a legendary civil rights figure, told the Star Tribune in 1993 that the 1965 Voting Rights Act was “a direct result of SNCC action, and it’s a tribute to the work that McDew did. … Without him these things wouldn’t have happened as quickly.”
But the work took its toll and McDew grew tired of the abuse. He worked in Washington, D.C., on federal antipoverty programs for several years, moving to Minnesota in 1969 to work for the St. Paul Health and Welfare Council and later the Metropolitan Council.
In the early 1980s, McDew became an academic adviser at Metro State and “found a place in the classroom,” Smith said. When colleagues discovered his background, he began teaching classes on civil rights, human relations and black history. A skilled storyteller, his lectures captivated students.
“Teaching was part of the struggle,” said Daniel Abebe, a Metro State professor. “His classes were always full.”
McDew paid special attention to the needs of immigrant students. “He helped people achieve what they wanted within the boundaries of their own lives,” Gilfix said. He retired from Metro State in 2006.
McDew converted to Judaism at the age of 14, in part because of how warmly the faith had welcomed him in contrast to white Christian congregations. He enjoyed cooking and spending time in nature, and was an avid reader, Gilfix said.
Besides Gilfix, he is survived by his daughter, Eva Goodman of Portland, Ore.; and brothers Mark, of Eau Claire, Wis., and Eric, of Forest Lake. Services have been held.