An activist as well as a theoretician, he led his first demonstration in the eighth grade, to protest violations of the religious freedom of Amish students in his hometown of Massillon, Ohio.
McDew's career as an activist expanded in scope while he was a freshman at South Carolina State College in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Inevitably involved in the newborn sit-in movement, he was elected as student leader by his fellow demonstrators. Influenced by Rabbi Hillel's dictum, "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'," McDew participated in the founding of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960. Described by fellow SNCC activist, Bob Moses, as a "black by birth, a Jew by choice and a revolutionary by necessity," McDew was elected as Chairman of SNCC in 1961 and served in that capacity until 1964.
California Congressman Tom Hayden characterized McDew as a "combination of intellectual and jock, possessed of an absolutely arrogant fearlessness." Under McDew's leadership, SNCC expanded its community organizing activities, penetrating into those parts of the South deemed too dangerous for organizers by traditional civil rights programs. With its commitment to developing and empowering local leadership and challenging racist laws and practices, SNCC's field secretaries led the way in desegregating local facilities, operating freedom schools and registering voters. In one of the most extraordinary and sustained displays of courage and resolve in the history of American activism, SNCC field workers endured years of savage and continuous repression to challenge the most racist state in the Union, Mississippi. Their activities culminated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party challenge to the party establishment at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. The SNCC policy of developing local leadership bears fruit today in the increasing number of black elected officials all over the Deep South, whose entry into political life was inaugurated by SNCC's presence in their communities.
Since that time, McDew has been active in organizations for social and political change, working as a teacher and as a labor organizer, managing anti-poverty programs in Washington, D.C., serving as community organizer and catalyst for change in Boston and San Francisco, as well as other communities. He has appeared on countless radio and television programs as a speaker against racism. He continues to be involved in programs for social and political change designed to develop local leadership and break down racial and cultural barriers.
McDew is presently associated with Metropolitan State University, Minneapolis, MN, where his classes in the history of the civil rights movement, African-American history and classes in social and cultural awareness are always oversubscribed. His dynamic and intensely personal style make him a compelling teacher. Says one of his students, "He makes ideas so interesting." McDew is working on a book about the civil rights movements.
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