Civil Rights Activist McDew visits campus
Civil Rights Activist Charles McDew visited campus from Oct. 6 to 7.
Charles McDew was a founder and president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. During his visit to campus from Oct. 6-7, he answered some questions about his life as a civil rights activist and the challenges he faced.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Massillon, Ohio. That’s where I started this journey.
Q: In your first semester at South Carolina State College, you were arrested for trying to attend the YMCA with a white friend to play basketball, for refusing to ride in the Jim Crow car of the train and for refusing to say "sir" to a white police officer. Were you surprised by these requests, having been from the North? Why did you feel it was important to stand up for your rights?
A: The first time I got arrested, I didn’t know what I was doing would get me in trouble. They closed the school at South Carolina State for Thanksgiving so you had to go somewhere, [you] couldn’t stay on campus. And I went home with one of my roommates to a place called Sumter, South Carolina. We went to a party and after the party they all drank and I didn’t; I was the designated driver. We were driving home from the party and the cops pulled us over, and I asked, “What’s the problem officer, is there a problem here?” And the cop answered, “Not yet we don’t.” And I asked, “Well why did you stop me?” So we started going back and forth. And then the cop asked, “Where you from boy?” And I said, “Ohio, you got the license can’t you read?” That wasn’t the right thing to say. I was 16 at the time. The cop hit me. The town I’m from, Massillon, is a steel mill town—a tough place. You grew up tough. If somebody was going to hit me, I was going to hit back; it was that simple. And so I hit the cop back, and we got into it. And his friend jumped in, his friend being a fellow officer. And they beat me bloody. Broke my arm, broke my jaw, and then I was in jail for disrespecting an officer and breaching the peace. That was really the first time, but from that point on it really had nothing to do with the larger community—it was me. You may do this with other black people, you don’t do it to me. I don’t care if you’ve been doing this for 400 years, you don’t do it to me. And so that’s what was happening. I was getting busted just for being myself. There were all sorts of segregation laws in South Carolina. There were also ridiculous laws, like it was against the law for a black man to look at a white woman in her face. You could be arrested for doing it; it was a form of assault just to look at a woman. So I was busted for that.
After my first arrest I got out of jail and went to go back to campus on the train. The conductor said to me, “Get on back to the baggage car.” What is this baggage cart nonsense? I didn’t know that if you were black, you couldn’t ride in the regular cars. There was one car for black people, after that was full you rode in the baggage car. I said, “No, no, not me. I don’t do baggage cars. I don’t ride with moldy trunks and stinking dogs and all that stuff. There are plenty of seats right here in the regular car and I’m having one.” I sat down, and I was back in jail. I had just gotten out of jail, and now I was back in jail.
I got back to school and I was hurting because of my busted jaw and I wanted to get back on campus quickly. There’s this big public park in the middle of the city called Edisto park. I didn’t know that you couldn’t go into the parks. In fact what I learned after the third arrest in those two days, was that anything that says open to the public was restricted to black people; they couldn’t go in. It took me a little while to understand all of that. [You] couldn’t go to beaches; you couldn’t go to any beach from Baltimore down to Florida; you could not step into the Atlantic Ocean. It was against the law for black people to do that. It seems sort of strange but when Mandela got out of prison in South Africa one of the first things they did was to have what we call a wade-in, which is going into the ocean.
So the first time I had come home for Christmas I had been arrested six times and it cost my parents about 5,000 dollars, above and beyond the cost of tuition and room and board. We didn’t have that kind of money, and my father was saying, “Forget it, come back here. We have to change this plan.” I said, “Cool,” because I was sick of the South by then.
First semester ended at the end of February, so I went back. February 1, I’m back on campus, waiting for my father to come back and get me. The sit-ins started in North Carolina and a group of students on my campus came to me and asked, “Have you heard of what’s happening in North Carolina with the sit-ins?” And I said “Yeah,” and they said “Well we want to do that here.” And I said, “Well go ahead and do it, what’s that got to do with me.” And they said, “Well, we want you to be our spokesman.” And I said, “Yeah right. You guys don’t understand, these white people are crazy: stone cold clinically insane. You might have to deal with them, but I don’t. In another few weeks the semester will be over and I’ll be out of here on my way back to Ohio and I’ll never go any further South then Columbus for the rest of my life. So thanks, good luck to you and goodbye.” Then that weekend I was reading the Talmud and I was reading some writings by Rabbi Hillel. And Hillel, one of his lectures talked about, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?"
Q: What does Rabbi Hillel’s dictum mean to you?
A: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That far my history of being down there was strictly out of being there for myself. When the cops arrested me, and the conductor told me to move, I didn’t care about anybody else. I knew the history of how they treated black people; I mean, I had learned it. I was always for me and always for “you will recognize my dignity” and that’s that. The second part of Hillel’s dictum was, “If I am for myself only, what am I?” If you’re concerned for yourself, that’s sort of natural. But “If I am concerned only for myself, what am I?”; that says to me that there is a responsibility that we have to other people, all other people who were oppressed and struggling. “If not now, when?” meant no vacillating about doing something if you made a decision that you were going to go beyond your personal being. You have to act. If you talk the talk, then you have to walk the walk. Otherwise it doesn’t count.
Q: How did the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) get started?
A: We got invited to this meeting by Dr. [Martin Luther] King [Jr.]. Dr. King wanted students to be the cutting edge of the Civil Rights Movement but he made one mistake, which was, he said, “If you use non-violence as a tactic you should accept non-violence as a way of life.” I said, “No, no.” Non-violence has to do with moral persuasion. It’s a moral position and you cannot win non-violently with these violent people. They don’t know or recognize us as humans, therefore we can’t make a humanistic sort of appeal—you can’t appeal to their humanity.
So I told Dr. King, “Thanks but no thanks. I don’t want to get on your organization and if anybody else feels the way I do, they should come join me.” Many of them came to join me, and that became the beginning of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. And so then we made plans of how we were going to change this country in five years. We knew one of the things was that people were going to die—we knew that. There was a blood price to be paid, and we were going to pay it.
Q: What were your personal responsibilities as chairman of the SNCC from 1961 to 1964?
A: My main responsibility was building the organization. My main jobs were recruiting people, raising money, and spreading the word. If you’re going to turn the country around in five years you need more than Chuck McDew.
Q: You were incarcerated in the state of Louisiana from 1963 to 1966, what was the cause of the arrest?
A: I was going to get one of our field operators out of jail, and then they arrested me. I was arrested because I was the head of SNCC. That was the reason. It was the worst place in the world. I have never been in a place as bad. But you got to do what you go to do.
Q: Why did they finally decide to release you?
We made a deal. The deal was that the SNCC would stay out of Louisiana. That was fine with me and with us because we figured all the other groups were there anyhow. CORE was there—Congress of Racial Equality—and the NAACP [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People] was there. All of the other groups were there, they just wouldn’t let SNCC be there….They made it clear they were going to arrest anybody from SNCC.
Q: Why did they single SNCC out?
A. Because we were the toughest, we were better than all of the rest of them. We were younger, interracial.
Q: The SNCC focused a lot on establishing local leadership within towns. Why was the focus not on making the organization big, since as you said, it was only supposed to be active for five years?
A: We used to say if somebody knows your name better than they know that of their local representative, than you’re not doing your job. Our thing was that we could change this country in five years. In fact that was one of the recruiting tactics. If I were trying to recruit you, I’d say, “I want you to join. And I’ll tell your parents, if you let this girl join us we will make more changes in the lives of black people in the next five years, then has been made in the past 400 years.”