A traffic stop brought Charles McDew face-to-face with Jim Crow for the first time in his life.
He was a college freshman in 1959 at South Carolina State University, far from his Ohio hometown.
The white officer wanted deference, asking McDew at one point why he wasn’t saying “Yes, sir” to a white man.
“I said ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ ” McDew recounted years later to a historian.
He was jailed that night for disturbing the peace — the first of three arrests over two days, all racially based. It awoke McDew’s consciousness.
Within months he was leading the newly formed Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, meeting with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the vanguard of the 1960s civil rights movement. He urged protests, sit-ins, and voter registration drives to upset the balance of power.
Arrested dozens of times, McDew said he intentionally focused his activism in the cities and counties with the worst reputations for racism.
It was far from the life of pro football and small business that the former high school football player had imagined for himself while being raised by a nurse and a chemistry teacher in a Midwestern steel town.
He kept faith in education and democracy, telling a biographer that the first was vital to black Americans’ futures and the second could be spread by showing “the world and ourselves that it is a viable and good philosophy that can help people wherever they come from.”
After segregation crumbled, McDew spent years teaching history at Metropolitan State University, using humor, a rich baritone and a defiant spirit to keep alive the memory of the fight he helped win.