With the help of a St. Paul man, the South comes to terms with civil rights era crimes

Young Charles McDew
Chuck McDew was the second chairman of SNCC the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, and he and others appeared in a l963 film, "We Can't Turn Back," which chronicles the story of their voter registration work.
Image courtesy of Estuary Press; Harvey Richards Collection

The discovery of the bodies of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, three young civil rights workers murdered in Mississippi in 1964 -- two whites and one black -- galvanized the nation and led to passage of the Civil Rights Act a few weeks later.

An unanticipated outcome of the search for the three didn't make headlines, according to Chuck McDew.

"As they were searching for them, they found bodies everywhere," he says.

Charles McDew
Charles McDew of St. Paul is a founder of SNCC, the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee, and a retired Metropolitan State University faculty member.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Chuck McDew, now 68, was in his early 20s then. He was a founder of SNCC (pronounced "snick"), the Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee.

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He and others organized sit-ins, marches and voter registration in southern states. For their work, they were beaten and jailed. At one point, McDew says he was placed in solitary confinement in Louisiana's Angola state prison for more than a year for what authorities called criminal anarchy.

McDew says the civil rights workers gave the same warning to all the volunteers: Some white residents would object violently to their work.

"They will kill you for what you are doing in attempting to register voters," McDew recalls.

McDew says he and other civil rights workers watched as the FBI's search for Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman led to grim and unexpected results.

"These [decades-old] cases are important. It indicates a willingness to make those who committed crimes pay for them."

While dragging a nearby river, investigators also discovered two 19-year old black voter registration volunteers -- locals, who had also gone missing.

"One of them had his head chopped off, and his hands tied behind his back with barbed wire and his feet tied with barbed wire," McDew says.

Two years ago, a jury convicted an 80-year old Mississippi man in the Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman murders. Four weeks ago, authorities arrested and charged a 71-year old Mississippi man and former Ku Klux Klan member in the kidnapping and murder of the two workers whose bodies were found in the river.

Chuck McDew says in many cases, local residents and law enforcement often knew who committed violence during the civil rights era.

He says it is unhealthy for a society to cover up crime, even when it is decades in the past.

"That's why these cases are important. It indicates a willingness to make those who committed crimes pay for them," McDew says.

Susan Glisson says pursuing decades-old civil rights era cases is important, because it gets blacks and whites talking about the current state of race relations.

Susan Glisson
Susan Glisson is director of the University of Mississippi William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.
Photo courtesy of University of Mississippi

Glisson directs the University of Mississippi's William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, named for a former Mississippi governor. Chuck McDew participates in the reconciliation process. Glisson calls McDew her mentor.

Glisson remembers one town meeting organized by the institute, where the discussion about the murder of black residents dispelled myths held by both whites and blacks.

"All the black folks in the group had suspected that white folks in the community didn't care that the murders had occurred there, and they found that not to be the case," she says. "And all the white folks suspected all the black folks held them accountable for the murders, and they found that not to be case."

Sometimes the reconciliation conversations lead to tangible results, Glisson says. A few communities confronted with their violent past have made long overdue infrastructure improvements to poor, predominantly black neighborhoods.

Glisson's work is focused on the South, but she says people and institutions everywhere need to examine the role they played in supporting slavery -- and their role now in perpetuating racism.

"There's an amnesia about it, there's a comfortability with thinking of the South as a scapegoat -- as the only place where racism occurred," Glisson says.

Chuck McDew says no one has ever apologized to him for the beatings, arrests and jail time he served as he and others worked for civil rights.

"Most of the people we've met never saw themselves as doing anything wrong," he says.

McDew says trying to bring to justice perpetrators of violence from 40 years ago is not retribution, but a necessary act to reaffirm the country's principles.

"Either we are all Americans and with the rights of all Americans, or we are not. Either justice works for all of us or it doesn't," he says.

Chuck McDew is retired from his faculty position at Metropolitan State University. He speaks publicly about his experiences, and he leads high school students on tours to communities where he and others worked for civil rights years ago.