Thoughts & Memories on Returning the South Carolina
Connie Curry, SNCC

Presentation, Voices of the Civil Rights Movement panel
Civil Rights Conference, The Citadel, 2003

Let me begin by saying that I have known Chuck McDew, Hayes Mizell, and Charles Joyner — all three of these men up here on the stage — for over 40 years. I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I must say my first contact with South Carolina in the '40s and '50s was going to the pavilion at Myrtle Beach to do the shag. Anyone remember that great dance? Secondly, you could get married in South Carolina without a blood test, which was big for North Carolina, and then the third thing was good peaches. My neighbor would go down and always bring back these wonderful peaches from South Carolina.

Now back then, I don't know who could have dreamed that in February 1961 — not too many years later (forgive me for pulling out this archival newspaper story), one of the guest speakers at a black church in Rock Hill, South Carolina, was a white woman, Connie Curry, of NSA [National Student Association], who said to the group, "We [unclear] our finest hour last year during mass arrests resulting from demonstrations, but perhaps the students in Rock Hill have given us or will give us a second finest hour."

To explain — by 1961 I was the first white woman on the executive committee of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, based in Atlanta. I had met Chuck and a lot of the other leaders in SNCC and we were constantly planning and strategizing for the follow-up activities to the sit-in movement, which had started in 1960. SNCC decided when nine students from Friendship Junior College went to the chain gang in Rock Hill in 1961, to have a different strategy, which was to fill the jails. That's when a lot of the students from Atlanta and all over came to Rock Hill, to demonstrate and be arrested, with the policy of "jail, no bail."

It's funny the little personal things you remember from those times. Ruby Doris Smith, who was one of the leaders from Spelman who came to help fill the jails, wouldn't go downtown for the demonstrations until her hair was curled. Ella Baker, Reverend Ivory, everybody sat in the living room and waited because Ruby Doris would not remove her curlers until her hair was appropriate for the jail stay. Then we went downtown for the demonstration. I was the designated observer and remember the anger of the white people, who jeered and cursed the students.

The summer of 1960, Will Campbell and I ran a human relations seminar in Ohio, and Chuck McDew was one of the student leaders who came up for that meeting. Later on Chuck wrote to Valerie, another student at the seminar. I haven't told him I was going to read this, but I assume it's all right:

Please excuse my stationery. (It was written on brown paper towels from the Orangeburg jail.)

I was arrested about an hour ago with three students. We sat down at the SH Kress lunch counter and asked to be served. I can hear singing outside the jail. They are singing "We Shall Overcome," and it sounds so wonderful that I kind of want to cry.

Dot, the girl in the next cell, can see them, and there are nearly four hundred students out there all singing "The Star Spangled Banner," and then I feel a kind of bitter feeling deep inside. I know that those singing as well as we who are in here do believe that we shall overcome and the truth will make us free, and I'm trying very, very hard also to believe that this is the home of the brave and the free. I keep asking myself just how brave are the people who put me here.

Oh God, why must it be that way? Why can't we be a world of blind men and then we would all be free and equal. Or would a group of blind bigots start discriminating on the basis of tone quality? Would all people with high voices have to live in filthy ghettos and be second-class citizens? Would the children of high-voiced people have to fight mobs to get into school? Would their Braille tablets say that they aren't as good as the low-voiced and that they smell bad, have VD, and live from day to day with one dream in their dark world, to sleep with a low-voiced woman?

Oh sickness, oh hate, go and leave the hearts of men. Let me be me, Charles Fredrick McDew, man, student, lover of life. I don't want to be that nigger with no personality, no being, just a dark blob. I want to be me with my color that I love, with my eyes, my body, my dreams and aspirations. I'll close now. It's been a very trying day and we have a trial in the morning.

Pray for us, Val. Pray for us all. Chuck, or as the fellows call me — from the cell — Number 247771. — Chuck McDew, 1961

Pretty profound for a twenty-one-year-old. I want to point out something else interesting about South Carolina. Following Rock Hill there was an enormous organizing effort pushed by the South Carolina Human Relations Council. They formed a Student Human Relations Council as an affiliate of the adult group. Marcia Synnott was telling you the other day about the role that Alice Spearman and Libby Levine took in that, and to the best of my knowledge it was the only southern state that formed an interracial statewide student organization. It was very active, and the group held meetings for the next several years in Columbia and also at Penn Center on the coast.

Again, I remember a funny incident. Casey Haden, another white woman in the movement, and I were riding up to Columbia to a meeting of the South Carolina student council, and Reggie Robinson, who was with SNCC was with us, and we needed gas. We were going to pull into a station in a small town and were debating whether Reggie, who is black, and Casey and I were going to pull into this small-town filling station. Should Reggie get on the floor and let Casey and I get in front, or should Casey and I get on the floor in back and Reggie drive in? So Reggie said, "Well, I've solved all that," and he put on a chauffeur's cap he had brought with him, and Casey and I got in back and we played Driving Miss Daisy all the way into Columbia.

Somewhere in that period I also met Matthew Perry, who was helping get people out of the jail, and Fred Reese, the head of the Adult South Carolina Council on Human Relations, and Hayes Mizell, and Dan Carter, and Charles Joyner, and Selden Smith. I went to the apartment that they shared, and it is so great that they are here today — still in the battle and still good friends. Three of them are totally brilliant historians who are preserving the history of South Carolina and the freedom movement. It's unusual to find four men who have kept the faith this long. Hayes is coming back to South Carolina and will continue his work in public education and foundation work.

Now I want to read you a piece that I found on the South Carolina Student Human Relations Council from November 1961: "The theme of our student conference is the role of the southern student in a democracy. There will be four workshops. One: 'The {UNCLEAR} of Democracy'; Two: 'The Radical Right as a Threat to Democracy'; Three: "The Role of the Student in the Changing Politics of the South'; and Four: 'The Role of the Student in Changing the Economics of the South.'"

Pretty prescient topics considering politics today. At that meeting in '61 there were students from Allen, Benedict, Clafin, Clemson, Columbia, Converse, Erskine, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Lander College, Morris, Newberry, South Carolina State, University of South Carolina, Voorhees, Winthrop, and Wofford. That's a lot of South Carolina student support for that time.

Following that conference I got a memo from Casey about developments at South Carolina State: "Although South Carolina is a state university and has been a leader in the movement in Orangeburg, Claflin has really given a majority of the people. The state of South Carolina through the university administration is working to destroy the longstanding relationship between Claflin and South Carolina State. The first move was to put up a ten-foot hurricane fence with barbed wire."

Now these are two black colleges and both very active, but of course South Carolina State was afraid of losing their funding. There was a law or rule saying no meetings could be held on the state campus without two faculty members present. Benedict is another black college, and students were not allowed to meet with a Freedom Rider nor schedule meetings related to the movement, and other campus meetings were moved to conflict with any movement meeting. You could not belong to a protest group if you were under 21 or unless you had your parents' permission.

I read this to you to give you some idea the difficulties students increasingly faced for their continued participation in the movement I found a lot of this material in going back through my own archives and in the archives at the King Center. It became more fascinating as Harvey Gantt attempted to enroll as the first black student at Clemson University. I read in the files that the South Carolina movement, student and adult, was focusing on getting black students admitted to the state universities. News clippings from the Washington Post in February of '63 reported:

It has been said that Mississippi was conceived in sin, while South Carolina fell into it. This is a reference to the birth of Mississippi as a frontier state in the early nineteenth century just at a time that the economy was making slavery profitable. By then, South Carolina was already generations old. A cosmopolitan state with a aristocracy born and nurtured in the liberalism that helped the nation. This comparison is used today to explain why the enrollment of a Negro in Clemson last Monday was accomplished with calm and dignity. One writer recently pointed out that South Carolina's tradition and heritage make it akin to North Carolina and Virginia which have accommodated themselves to racial desegregation where Alabama and Mississippi haven't.

The article points out that South Carolina has a certain class or style that would avoid the panic and shambles that occurred at 'Ole Miss at the attempted enrollment of James Meredith. I say this to point out to you that several years later South Carolina had the Orangeburg Massacre. So much for the image of class and gentility and the aristocracy.

I'm going to end here, but point out to you that right after Harvey Gantt's admission, a newspaper commented, "Although South Carolina should take great pride in what happened in Clemson, it should be regarded as one step and should encourage us to work harder on our problems. There are more than eight hundred thousand African Americans in South Carolina who desperately need job opportunities. Our schools need improving. We need more technical education, more of our citizens need to register and vote."

And they go on to talk about the need to make black public education open with more emphasis on quality. I would add that my own work and my feeling about South Carolina and all of the southern states show the enormous need to work on the issue of public education. Public schools everywhere are re-segregating with dropouts, expulsions, and suspensions helping to create a fast track to prison, particularly for youth of color. More state money is being spent on incarceration than on education. This country has the highest prison rate in the world, with over two million people incarcerated, with a vast majority of black men. There are more black men in prison in the United States than in college.

We must look to that and to the other issue mentioned this morning in one of the sessions. Chuck and I are working on St. Simons and some of the other islands along the coast, where land that has belonged to black people is literally being stolen away by developers and builders. We talked to a woman at Hilton Head who said "I live on the mainland now. I catch a bus every day over to Hilton Head and work in a house that had belonged to my father since the end of slavery." So that's at least three issues that we must work on. I guess what I'm saying is that it's not over.

Copyright © Connie Curry


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