Returning to the South
Chuck McDew, SNCC

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

It was sort of fascinating for me to come back here and to see so many people from my life from down here over the years. I was thinking as I came in last night, damn, the last time I saw that guy, he was having me thrown in jail. And now he's the champion of the liberal causes — that's Fritz Hollings.

We had gone from South Carolina State to Columbia to present a petition asking that at least there be the signs of segregation be taken down in public places. And at the time we had gone we had made two mistakes. One, it was a "non-colored-day." Colored people, we were "colored" back then. Colored people could go to the Capitol on Sundays. We thought, damn, we didn't think that would do much since you couldn't pursue any business, and we questioned whether Governor Hollings would be there on a Sunday afternoon, so we went on a Monday, a non-colored day, and that was the first punishable offense. Because once again it was the breaking of the laws of segregation of the state of South Carolina, and we were arrested then.

But before that happened we were taken in to see the governor, and there was this discussion of our local Blacks, good little Blacks, the governor was saying until all these outside agitators came in, and I know you're one of the biggest of those agitators. He always had this marvelous senatorial deep voice, and I said this guy really sounds like a leader of the great state of South Carolina. So he went on and said our local Blacks were good Blacks until y'all came down, you outside agitators came down here and started bringing them Communist ideas.

When I talk to my students now about that there even used to be an organization called the House Un-American Activities Committee, they are flabbergasted and they react with disbelief "Don't be so disbelieving, you'll see it soon, you know from the next few weeks or months."

And my students always ask me why? You know, "Professor, why did you come to Minnesota?"

Well, it's simple really. Minnesota shares a border with Canada. Next time my fellow Americans get crazy I can walk. You know I don't need a visa or anything else. I can make it out safely. I said,"And that time may be sooner than you want to imagine."

[McDew was speaking during a period of racially-tinged Republican political resurgance which facilitated Bush II's disputed victory over Gore in 2000. A victory enabled by the systematic disenfranchisment of 50,000 Afro-Americans in Florida.]

But coming here yesterday, I haven't been back to South Carolina. When I left I said, "Lord, let me out of here. I'm gone." And at the point the last time I left there were certain places I could say, "I'm not going there anymore." And one I said to the Lord — I was in prision in Louisiana charged with criminal anarchy, highest treason against the sovereign state of Louisiana — and I said, "Lord, if you get me out of here, I will never, ever again in life as long as I am Black come back to the state of Louisiana or Texas." Those are two places that they can — there's got as Emmett Till's grandfather used to say "You can take my part of the South, I'm gone. I'm done with it"

And I didn't come back. I mean I left, got on a plane when I got out of prision, and headed for the furthest place I could get to away from our country and ended up in Finland. And so I really held to that for a long time. And then when I met Vernon a few years ago and he was talking about this conference, and I was saying "The Citadel? You're kidding?"

And then Vernon was saying, "No, they're going to give me an appointment now."

I said, "It is a topsy turvy world. If they're going to give you, Vernon, an appointment to work at the Citadel things have changed." I said, "Don't you know the Citadel was one of those places that if we came within a couple of blocks, you were subject to be arrested back in the '60s."

The Citadel was the symbol and sign of white dominance and rule. When Mathew Perry was mentioning preparing to get Harvey Gantt into Clemson, there were all these memories that came back for me.

I remember the speech that Governor [Ross] Barnett made that day when he told the citizens of Mississippi that no, 'Ole Miss would never be integrated. And there would be segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever. It was at the halftime of the football game between 'Ole Miss and the University of Alabama. But I had said right along all along that South Carolina was no better than Mississippi. All y'all sitting out there talking about — you're patting yourselves on the back and praising how civil the good citizens of South Carolina were, they didn't impress me as that way.

When I came here and when I went to Mississippi that opinion never really changed. So this is one of the few times I've been back, and when Vernon — I said, "What, they're going to let Vernon in?" Then by all means I'm going. If he can get me there even for a day or two, I'll do that, because after I left I just didn't come back. And as I said there were all these memories of things that there were occasioned by seeing many of you and being here.

I was raised in Ohio. My father had gone to South Carolina State, and I was raised in a place called Massillon, Ohio. And in Massillon, Massillon is a big football city, and I was one of them hotshot football players. And my life was all set for me; by the time I was fifteen I knew what I was going to do. In my family the boys split between Ohio State and Michigan, and that's what I was going to do. I was going to finish high school and go to Michigan, play ball, go into the pros, play pro ball, marry a good-looking woman, have bright children, and, you know, retire and buy a liquor store or whatever they do. Liquor store or used car lot — live out the American dream.

So I had never — but my father felt that it was important for us, me, my brothers, my sister, to go spend some time at a historically black university, so he chose for me South Carolina State. At that time I had never been further south than Columbus, Ohio. When I first came — when I was brought down to South Carolina, and it was just strange. I remember my classmates at Lowrnam Hall at South Carolina State were asking me, were saying, you know how you carry yearbooks and things. and they were saying, "You went to an integrated school? How many of you were in your class?"

I said, "Well, I don't know. I mean, I had never counted them." And then I found — you know I counted there were 12 Black students out of a class of about 470. And at first when I first came down here, it was sort of wonderful because at South Carolina State I saw more Black girls in one day than I had seen in my entire life in Massillon, Ohio. And all these girls were not my cousins, and that was just wonderful. I thought my father was a bright fellow ... insisting on us going to these Black — he's a fine man and a bright fellow. And to myself I was thinking about if this ain't the fox throwing the fox in the henhouse; that's where my father was smart, I think.

This [was] a wonderful place to be, and I was sent initially because he wanted me to have Black role models where in my town you know there was the Black doctor, the Black lawyer, the Black undertaker, and four or five Black preachers. Those were the professionals. They didn't have Black teachers. My sister was the first Black teacher in Massillon, Ohio, and they didn't have Black teachers in public schools until after the '54 [Brown v Board of Education] decision. So I had never had a Black teacher until I went to South Carolina State. So this was good. This was all good.

And I was seeing a Black environment, and that was wonderful until the first time I had to leave campus, and that was Thanksgiving of my freshmen year. I went to Sumter, South Carolina, with my roommate, and we went to a party and they drank and I didn't; so I was like the designated driver after the party. As we were driving back to the house, the police pulled me over, and we were talking — you know the guy — what's the problem officer? Do we have a problem here? Blah, blah, blah.

Them cops said, "Where you from, boy?"

I said, "Ohio, why? Why? You've got the license; look. You can read, can't you? It says these are Ohio license."

"Didn't they ever teach you how to say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' to white men up there?"

I said, "You've got to be jiving. Are you kidding? 'Yes, sir' and 'no, sir' to white men up there?" Now remember, this is 1959, I'm a sixteen-year-old freshman, newly licensed driver, in fact, and had done nothing wrong, so I could talk to this cop just like another person. And I said, "What do you mean, 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir' up there to white men? You've got to be jiving."

And he hit me; the cop hit me. And being from Massillon, Ohio, which is a rather tough steel-mill town, I hit him back before he ever got his fist out of my face and was proceeding to stomp on his head when his partner grabbed me. That was my introduction to the other side of the world. They beat me bloody in Sumter, South Carolina, and as they were beating me I was saying to the guys in the car, "I'm going to get you for this," because where I came from, you don't allow a friend, a partner, to be beaten without helping. What I didn't understand that in 1959, November, in Sumter, South Carolina, it could have cost them their lives to hit a white cop. And so they beat me, broke my jaw, busted my arm, and I was arrested for disturbing the peace by screaming as they were administering the beating.

When I got out of jail, I went to get on the train to go back to the campus, and the conductor said, "All right, get on back to the baggage car."

I said, "Hey, sport, where —?"

He says, "Back to the baggage car." What I didn't know was the old rule when the colored car was filled, you rode in the baggage car. I hadn't been on a train in the South ever.

So I said to the conductor, "I'm sorry, sport, you know, not for my little $8.20 do I ride with, you know, smelly cats and mangy dogs. There are seats right here, and I'm having one of them." I was back in jail for violating the law of segregating the races. I came to understand that in South Carolina it was a very simple rule that if it said open to the public, it meant it was closed to Black people.

So by the time I got home for Christmas, I had been arrested six times, I had my jaw wired shut, I had a busted arm, and my father is saying, "Okay, forget it. You know, the great experiment ends. We can't keep you down there; they're going to kill you."

And by then, too, I was fired. He was saying, so you have to come home. I was saying, "Cool, that's wonderful. My year of penitence had ended." It was over, and I had only been there for two months, three months. I was so glad when my father said I could come home.

But fate sort of took a hand at that point, my father said, "Okay, I'm going to drive you back to campus. You stay here on campus until I come and get you."

I said, "Fine." It so happened that we were on semesters. The semester ended at the end of February and on February 1, 1960, three students from A&T College in Greensboro went to a lunch counter, sat down, and were arrested, thus starting the modern sit-in movement.

The group of students on my campus came to me and said, "Chuck, you heard about what's happening in Greensboro didn't you?"

I said, "Yes, of course I have."

[They] said, well, we want to do that here; my response was go ahead, do it. What's that got to do with me? And they wanted me to be the spokesman. By that time I had gained a reputation of being somewhat crazy. And they asked me to be the — I said, "No, no, no. I'm not, there's nothing wrong with me, but what y'all have to understand these white people are collectively insane. I mean they're just a mass of crazy white people."

Said, "I don't know what happened. I don't need to figure this out, but I do know what the end result is. A society of insane people, and y'all ain't wrapped too tight either for putting up with them. So here y'all are down here in the asylum together, a bunch of crazy white people and a bunch of crazy Black people. Well, I don't have to be here much longer. I will soon be back home in another three weeks, and after that I will never go any further South than Cincinnati as long as God's sun shines on this earth. I don't have to be in the South. I won't be in it. I'm out of it. So Au revoir, Au revoir, you know it's French you know for 'Bye, y'all; I'm gone."

Well, later I was reading the Talmud. In the Talmud the words of Rabbi Hillel pointed out — gave the thought if:
     I'm not for myself who will be for me?
     If I am for myself only what am I?
     If not now, when?

And I thought about that and I thought about that all night, and I thought that this place is as it is because my father went here and he didn't do what he should have done. And if I don't do what I should do, then my children will have to face this, and so if there is ever going to be a change in the way this is, it should be now ....

So I went back and apologized to these people who had asked me to join them, and I joined the movement. ...

So I joined the movement and changed my life, changed this country because what I thought would be a commitment for a few days that summer grew into a commitment for a lifetime. It wasn't long after that, you know, that we started having — attacking the symbols and the ways of segregation in Orangeburg. So the first time I met Matthew Perry was as my lawyer coming to get me out of jail.

The first time I ever went close to Clemson was, you know, I told you I came from a big football town, and I knew the coach here was famous. And Clemson back then had good football teams, and I wanted to go to — I was going to go to a game to watch the Clemson Tigers play. And the kids around me said, "Are you crazy? We don't go up there."

I said, "Why not?"

Said, "Because they don't want us up there" and then they went through the whole thing of segregated football and segregated this and segregated that. And I remember I used to — these people are sick. They used to watch the Washington Redskins, I used to call them the Washington Paleskins, It was an all white team with an owner who said they would never have Black players on the team, and in fact the first Black player they got came under court order.

And I thought, "How can you Black men stand up here and cheer these little white boys?" and the same was true of Clemson, the University of South Carolina, the Citadel, and all. And I'm saying how can y'all do that? You're crazy, that's why. I can answer my own question. But yet that you are mental, that they're all crazy. I don't know if I've completely given up that idea, but it grew, but as time went on and I was in on the founding of SNCC and later became SNCC's chairman and became very involved in hammering out the strategy that we could get and employ in voting and other ways to change the way this place was.

It's nice and it's good to be back, because it has changed and it's changed a lot. I often hear young students say there ain't nothing changed. I say, if you say nothing's changed it's only because you don't know what used to be and what it was like.

So, though reluctant at first to come back when Vernon said he could get me into the Citadel for a few days, I said that's something I want to see. To the citizens of the Citadel and one of the old cadets, fine, silver-haired gentleman, and, lo and behold, the last one I saw when I left South Carolina, was the first one I saw last night — the Honorable Governor Fritz Hollings — but it was good. And you know, we have chatted. We chatted last evening, and it's marvelous being back here with you all.

Copyright © Charles McDew


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