As a freshman at South Carolina State College, Charles “Chuck” McDew led nearly 1,000 students on a peaceful march in downtown Orangeburg, S.C.
That was during the height of the civil rights movement in 1963. McDew and his peers were protesting segregation and showing support for peaceful sit-ins.
They were met by local police with tear gas and fire hoses. The aggressive response to a peaceful demonstration didn't deter McDew from his life's mission of seeking equal rights. He became a powerful, young leader who was arrested 43 times during his quest for social justice. And his passion for the equality fight stayed with him until his death last week at the age of 79.
McDew grew up in Massillon and graduated from Washington High School in 1957. He moved to South Carolina to attend an all-black college where he became involved with the civil rights movement.
McDew fought for racial equality alongside prominent names, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and fellow Massillon native the Rev. James M. Lawson. Following his college years, he taught African-American history and the history of civil rights at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota.
His leadership and involvement with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was portrayed through the character Archie in the movie “Freedom Song,” directed by Phil Alden Robinson.
His death on April 3 was one day shy of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of King.
Eric McDew and Mark McDew will return to their hometown to remember and celebrate their brother's life during a memorial service at 2 p.m. Saturday at Washington High School.
Though the three brothers carried out their adult lives hundreds of miles from Massillon, the city remains their home.
“My brother always kept his roots in Massillon,” said Mark McDew, who now lives in Wisconsin. “He's been all over the world, but Massillon was always who he is. He was Massillon all the way through.”
Mark McDew describes life in Massillon as a different world than what Chuck McDew experienced when he moved to South Carolina. Prior to visiting his brother's school, Mark McDew said he had never experienced segregation.
When he was 9 years old, he went with his parents and siblings to drive his brother back to college. Mark McDew recalls lying in the grass with Eric as they played checkers on a warm day.
When the boys got thirsty, they stood up and ran toward a water fountain within eyesight. To their surprise, their mother and father yelled at them to stop. It was a water fountain designated for whites only.
“Chuck loved his family and wanted to keep everybody abreast with what was going on in the 'real world' as he would say,” McDew said. “We thought we lived in the real world until we got outside of Massillon.”
It was then McDew understood his brother's seriousness and dedication to civil rights.
“He was a tough character,” he said. “He lived through a lot of things. He's seen things that a 17-year-old and an 18-year old shouldn't see. From then on, the fight was on. Everything he thought was civil rights.”
Bright, young leader
Eric McDew, who resides in Minnesota, said his brother, Chuck, was intelligent and could have gone to any college or university of his choosing. However, their father wanted Chuck to attend an all-black school where he could see black professionals within the school.
Chuck McDew chose his father's alma mater and attended South Carolina State College, where he got involved with civil rights after less than six months.
“Besides being my good, older brother, he was a strong leader,” Eric McDew said. “He was concerned for people's rights at a very young age.”
In 1961, Chuck McDew became the second chairman of SNCC. Marion Barry held the position before McDew and later went on to become the first black mayor of Washington, D.C.
Initially, McDew turned down the offer of leadership.
“I said to myself, if I'm not for myself than who is going to be for me,” Mark McDew remembers his brother telling him. “It was in his blood to make a change for something or somebody,” he added.
As a member of SNCC, Chuck McDew protested segregation and encouraged blacks to register to vote.
According to SNCC Digital, the national organization formed in April 1960 after Ella Baker, who served as secretary for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, organized a conference at Shaw University in North Carolina.
During the conference, Baker recognized the potential of the students involved in the sit-in movement. Baker encouraged the students to think about forming their own organization.
Charlie Cobb was a SNCC field secretary in Mississippi from 1962 to 1967 and met McDew through SNCC meetings and conferences.
McDew pushed for young leadership during the civil rights movement in the '60s. He gave the younger generation a voice, Cobb said.
“If you talk about civil rights movement leadership, you were talking about grownups,” he said. “Chuck helped push forward the idea — which was brand new at the time — that young people could be leaders in the movement.”
Legacy of courage
Reggie Robinson, a former SNCC field secretary, has known Chuck McDew for nearly 50 years. The two visited one another frequently and kept in touch despite living more than 1,100 miles apart.
Robinson said he worked with McDew in multiple states as they traveled around the south to encourage black people to register to vote — an act that was regarded as dangerous during the civil rights movement.
Robinson said it was difficult persuading people to register because it meant the possibility of being killed. He recalled a time when NAACP member Herbert Lee was shot and killed in broad daylight while helping SNCC field secretaries with voter registration.
“You had to convince folks to risk their lives to register to vote,” he said. “If you got somebody to volunteer to register to vote, that was a triumph.”
Robinson said he, like McDew, was jailed a number of times for demonstrating. However, he and his fellow SNCC members continued to travel to southern cities in support of the cause.
“We were a band of brothers in the circle of trust,” he said.
Frank Smith, a former SNCC field secretary, said McDew left behind a legacy of spirit, compassion and courage. He recalled a time when he was in jail in Greenwood, Miss. with three other civil rights activists. McDew entered the jail and took forbidden photographs of them behind bars.
When the guards saw McDew, they took his camera to be destroyed. McDew had a second camera that was empty and tricked the guards.
Smith and his fellow civil rights activists had been imprisoned for leading a march to the county courthouse.
Smith saw McDew a week before his death when some of the SNCC members gathered to create the SNCC Legacy Project. Smith said McDew was his usual self — singing out of tune and sharing long, detailed stories with his friends from the movement.
The SNCC Legacy Project collected the stories and recordings of many prominent SNCC members, leaving behind their footprint for future generations, Smith said.
“(McDew) was willing to risk his life to make things right,” he said. “There will always be need for leaders like him as long as there is discrimination and prejudice in the world. We're going to miss him, but we know we have to soldier on because the cause is justice.”
Samantha Ickes is a reporter at The Independent in Massillon.