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Telling the Story: The most important Jewish Civil Rights leader you may not have heard of

This is not a trick question: Who was the most important – or the highest-ranking, or most influential – Jew in the civil rights movement?

While many may quickly answer Rabbi Abraham Heschel or the martyrs Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and those with a deeper knowledge of movement history might suggest Martin Luther King’s advisor and fundraiser Stanley Levison, it’s none of those. That’s especially so if importance is measured by rank in one of the leading civil rights groups.

Rather, it’s Charles McDew, who served as the second chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during some of its most dangerous days in the Deep South. He was also a Black civil rights leader, which is why the question may sound misleading unless it’s understood that a person can be Jewish as well.

McDew was born in Massillon, Ohio in 1938. Largely to please his father, he enrolled at the historically Black South Carolina State College in Orangeburg in the fall of 1959 – just months before students from North Carolina A&T sparked the lunch counter sit-in movement at Greensboro’s Woolworth’s store. Having already amassed an arrest record for defying local segregation laws, McDew was asked by Orangeburg students to lead their sit-ins. He at first declined, but upon reflecting on Hillel’s quote – “If not me, who? If not now, when?” – the freshman, who had converted to Judaism a few years earlier, agreed.

That role led to his presence at the founding meeting of SNCC a few months later and chairmanship of the group, which he would pass on to a young John Lewis in 1963.

It was during McDew’s tenure that another civil rights group, the Congress of Racial Equality, began the Freedom Rides, of whites and Blacks riding buses interracially to challenge Southern segregation. When CORE considered calling off the rides after a bus was bombed, SNCC immediately continued them, and also dispatched volunteer workers to small Black towns in the Deep South to lead voter registrations drives. Those efforts were frequently met by arrests and violent attacks, including from white elected officials and law enforcement officers. In Baton Rouge, La., McDew and SNCC colleague Bob Zellner – one of the first white Southerners to join SNCC, and not Jewish – were jailed in lieu of $7,000 bail, a then-near impossible amount for the fledgling group.

McDew, who died in 2018, chronicled that experience and many others in his memoir, “Tell The Story,” published posthumously in 2020 by his longtime companion, Beryl Gilfix. Here is an excerpt. It has been edited for brevity and style.

Book excerpt by Charles McDew with Beryl Gilfix

A 1962 mugshot of Charles McDew taken at his jailing in Baton Rouge, La.

A 1962 mugshot of Charles McDew taken at his jailing in Baton Rouge, La.

Baton Rouge allowed tours of its jail, and groups like Christians United in Christ Against Communism would come through. People in the South were more into that patriotic stuff than people in other parts of the country. By the time I left, I knew the jailer’s whole speech:

“In this cell here is our n———- communist anarchist Jew. You know what an anarchist is. An anarchist is one who attempts to overthrow the state by force or violence. J. Edgar Hoover says that there are 150,000 known communists in the United States. This boy here is one of the top ones. Got him under a $7,000 bond and he’ll never get out. We keep him in here away from the rest of the n———-s. He’d have them all thinking they are a-good as white men.”

After a while, it was like the Gray Line Tour. They’d open up the peephole and people would parade by to see what a real live communist looked like. When they’d bring the group by, I’d lie there and recite his lines along with him, and everyone would ooh and aah and say things like “he looks just like our Willie. He don’t look dangerous at all.”

Well, one day they had a school class field trip. After his speech, two little girls with blond ringlets said, “Say something communist.” I said “Kish mir in tuchas,’ which in Yiddish means “kiss my ass.” The little girls were just thrilled.

If I was a good boy, they’d leave my peephole open. If I said anything or asked for anything, they’d close it. I only tried to talk to the guards for the first few days. I proved to be a stimulus for intellectual discussions among the brown shirts. They would be sitting around with nothing to do and one of them would ask about the “n———- anarchist” in Hole Number One. This would lead into a discussion of an anarchist as one who works actively to overthrow the state and how that was an integral part of the international communist program. They told of how I and other integrationist types were promoting the program in this country. It seems that we are to force the races to mix, thereby destroying the pure blood line and weakening the racial strain, making the nation an easy prey for communism. I thought: “Now who was it who used to preach about Goyim and their superiority?”

They suggested they had a duty to be ever vigilant and jail all anarchists. whether they be in NAACP, SNCC or any protest group. Then they’d come back to my cell and stare at me with a curse and stomp angrily off. I would think, “Poor devils. You’d think they had captured Rudolf Hess.”

The charge of being a communist organization or communist sympathizers was taken very seriously at that time. It was the end of the McCarthy era, and red-baiting was as useful as race-baiting was in the South. Being called a communist was about the worst thing they could think to call us. One of the other big things was “outside agitator.” I told people I was from South Carolina.

The Black people called us Freedom Riders and the whites called us communists. There was a strong belief among the whites that local Black people would not be “doing anything” or would be satisfied with their situation if someone from up North didn’t tell them to be dissatisfied. They really did believe that they had the biggest communist in the United States in that cell, and they really hated communists. Like if I asked for water, they would say, no more s—- outta you and shut the peephole so they wouldn’t have to listen to me. I remember wondering, if I don’t talk, will I lose the ability to talk? Just like any other muscle atrophies. So I thought, OK, I’m going to talk but I really didn’t want to be heard talking to myself, because some day, I’ll start answering and that’s too dangerous. Days would go by when I wouldn’t hear my own voice.

They put some sort of status on the chairman of SNCC, because from the beginning I was kept in solitary confinement. Since the FBI had been sent in to see me, a goodly number of people knew of my plight. That being the case, I was in a good position to start making some demands. I once read a book that included a section on the Geneva Convention rules to govern prisoners of war. Armed with a bit of knowledge about the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions, plus a recollection of the United States penal code and Geneva Convention rules for prisoners, I loudly demanded to see the head of the jail.

I was taken to see Captain Edwards. I demanded permission to contact a lawyer via telephone or material with which to write a letter. I demanded to know the exact charges against me and my preliminary bond. He told me that the charges were criminal anarchy and vagrancy and the bond had been set at $7,000. That sort of knocked a hole in my day but I swallowed hard and carried on. I asked to be moved out of solitary confinement and to be provided with soap, salt, pepper and reading material. The captain said he would see what he could do and I was returned to the hole. Of course he did nothing.

Bob Zellner did not get moved near me until much later. I had imagined all sorts of things had happened to him; that he was dead or castrated. I was lying on the cot thinking when I heard his voice. He laughed, and I jumped up and yelled “Bob!” Later he told me that he had been equally worried about me. I started crying and he started crying and then we started singing. And then they shut the door. I felt like I had seen someone come back from the dead. I was convinced they had done him in. They had gone through this thing with him when we were arrested, saying, “you’re traveling with this n———- down here. You should know better.”

There was a piece of tin on the wall, which functioned like a mirror so I could see into his cell. If we whispered, they would let us talk but if we started to sing, they would close the door. When the door was closed, it also cut off the heat.

Bob had a book with him which he described as the perfect jail book, because it was 900 pages long, the kind you would only read on a desert island or in jail. It was a cowboy book about a range war, with descriptions of cowboys and lusty women and endless prairies. It was the kind of book I would never have read at any other time, but I was so starved for something to read that I wished I could get my hands on it. I had never realized how much I depended on reading. I’m the sort who will read anything, even read the ingredients on the cereal boxes. When the missionaries came around, I would take their literature just to have something to read.

One time, we agreed that he would try to get the book into my cell through the trusty (inmate) while I was in the shower. That was a real gift of love, since he would have nothing to read if I had the book. But when I came back from the shower, the book wasn’t there. I was so angry because Bob had paid the man to give me the book and the trusty took both the money and kept the book. I was so disappointed that I cried.

The day I was released, I had a chance to talk to a trusty who had given me ice to thank him. He said, “You don’t have to thank me. I’ve heard about you Freedom Riders.” Every civil rights worker was called a Freedom Rider. We were called Freedom Riders even though we had nothing to do with having ridden on the buses. People had never heard of SNCC but everyone knew about the Freedom Riders. It gave us instant credibility. In 1960, I was an anonymous man walking down the street in these little southern towns. In 1961, I was a Freedom Rider.

Copyright 20202 by Beryl Gilfix from “Tell The Story: A Memoir of the Civil Rights Movement.”

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