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Remembering voting-rights champion Charles McLean

Charles McLean leaning over to talk to another man

A native of Harnett County, North Carolina, Charles Augustus McLean became a prominent champion of voting rights in North Carolina during the mid-twentieth century. Beginning in the early 1950s, he led several NAACP-sponsored “register and vote” campaigns and investigated cases of voter suppression and racial discrimination. 

For McLean, advocating for equal rights began even before he began working at the NAACP. During World War II, he relocated to Fort Bragg to find work as a foreman painting federal buildings. However, the local union told him that they did not accept African Americans, and a lack of union membership meant that McLean and another Black foreman could not work on the base. Determined to fight the unequal treatment, McLean found the national president of the union and convinced him to reverse the rule rather than risk losing its charter.

NAACP officials Kelly Alexander Sr. and Walter White recognized McLean’s potential when they offered him a position as the political action director over the North Carolina NAACP-sponsored registration and voting programs in 1950. A year later, Alexander offered McLean a position as the State Field Director over 35 branches of the NAACP in North Carolina. 

During his tenure, McLean increased the number of branches from 35 to 110 and established 25 youth councils. A passionate supporter of voting rights and a dedicated member of the NAACP, McLean worked tirelessly to promote and protect access to the vote. McLean retired from his position as the State Field Director of the North Carolina NAACP in 1978 after 27 years of service. 

McLean passed away in 1991, but his legacy lives on. The Charles A. McLean Distinguished Service Award was established in his honor by the North Carolina NAACP to recognize individuals in the Winston-Salem and Forsyth County community who provide needed services to the local area.

The Charles A. McLean Papers are available for researchers to use in the Dalton Special Collections Reading Room. (Contact Us for an appointment). The collection contains material on voter registration initiatives, activity reports, personal/ family papers, and NAACP memorabilia. Select items from the collection are on display in the Vote for Change exhibit on the first floor of the library.

-- Sylvia Marshall

Photograph: Charles McLean (left) and two unidentified men. Charles A. McLean Papers.