It has taken five decades, but finally this year, York County’s justice system will officially bury segregation – forever chasing away the ghosts of 1961.
It was a time when simply being black was all but a crime itself under South Carolina law. A time when being black and eating or going to school or riding a bus with whites was a crime.
At a Jan. 28 court hearing, a York County prosecutor will ask a York County judge to vacate the convictions of 10 black men for the crime of sitting at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill in 1961.
Those men – nine of whom would later become known as the Friendship Nine – chose to spend a month in jail working on a chain gang, rather than to pay a fine and go home, to prove that the law was wrong.
Those men changed America.
On Jan. 28, America changes for them.
“It is exciting to be a part of this, to see that the courts realize that we were right,” said Clarence Graham of Rock Hill.
Like all the other members of the Friendship Nine, Graham today is a father and grandfather. Rock Hill has honored him and his peers for the past decade, and while race relations are still not perfect, they are better.
But in his heart, Graham is still an 18-year-old freshman at all-black Friendship Junior College, like he was on Jan. 31, 1961 – the day these brave men decided enough was enough.
All but one of the Friendship protesters were students, Rock Hill natives who had grown up being told by society and law and police and courts that they were less than whites in a legally segregated South Carolina that had vowed to never change.
The night before their sit-in at the McCrory’s five-and-dime on Main Street, Graham wrote a powerful letter to his mother, letting her know that he was going to get in trouble so that all “negroes” – the word used in 1961 – would have equality.
After their arrests for trespassing, white cops dragged the 10 young men out the back door of McCrory’s by their hair and collars and pants, straight to the city jail behind the building.
The next day, City Judge Billy Hayes convicted Graham, Willie McCleod, David Williamson Jr., Mack Workman, the late Robert McCullough, Charles Taylor, John Gaines, James Wells, Willie “Dub” Massey and civil rights organizer Thomas Gaither.
Rather than pay the $100 fine for trespassing, the men chose 30 days at hard labor. Taylor, to avoid losing a scholarship, left jail after three days. The “Jail, No Bail” civil rights slogan was born when the other nine went to the county prison farm. Within days, four black students from other states appalled by the convictions came and were arrested and jailed, too.
Rock Hill leaders, appalled by the audacity of blacks who wanted to be like whites, voted to outlaw public demonstrations by blacks. The white media, except for some places in the Northeast, mainly ignored or downplayed the story.
Three years later, after so many cracked heads – including one in May 1961 in Rock Hill, belonging to Freedom Rider John Lewis, the future Georgia congressman – segregation died when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted by Congress.
But the convictions of the Friendship protesters did not die.
The Herald and many others over the past decade have demanded that the convictions be done away with, erased, made right. State Rep. John King even tried to get a state law passed in 2012 that would erase civil rights convictions.
Still, morally wrong convictions remained on the records of 10 brave men.
But on Jan. 28 – six weeks after a South Carolina judge ruled that a 14-year-old black kid named George Stinney got an unfair trial and was wrongly executed in 1944 for the rape of two white girls – 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett will get as close to making it right for the Friendship protesters as can be done.
Brackett will argue in court that the law in 1961 was unjust, so their convictions were unjust. He will ask that the convictions be vacated.
Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III – nephew of the Judge Hayes who convicted the Friendship Nine 54 years ago – will sign the order.
The Friendship Nine finally will have no criminal records.
It will be a historic day, and the event is sure to draw the attention of a nation and a media that for so long was shamefully indifferent about the Friendship Nine and civil rights.
The men protested not just for themselves but for all black people – all people, really – against unjust laws. They have asked for no attention, ever, but they will get it Jan. 28.
Not the first
But this month’s court action won’t be the first time that black Rock Hill civil rights protesters had convictions under unjust segregation laws vacated.
On March 15, 1960 – 10 months before the Friendship Nine sit-ins – after weeks of marches and sit-ins, Rock Hill police arrested 70 black protesters, almost all Friendship College students themselves, at two bus stations, the post office and city hall.
The students sang such terribly divisive songs as “The Star Spangled Banner” and performed such dastardly deeds as waving American flags. They sang and cried and expressed their love for a country that did not love them.
It was the largest mass arrest in the city’s history.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Abe Plummer, the leader of the 1960 protesters who is a now-retired school superintendent from Georgia.
Plummer, Martin Leroy Johnson, now a retired college professor, and two others were Rock Hill’s very first marchers and sit-in protesters in 1960.
“We walked right down there, many, many days,” Johnson recalled.
All but five of the 70 were convicted of breach of peace, and all paid fines. This was before the Friendship Nine established the “Jail, No Bail” strategy.
Plummer, Jones and 63 others didn’t just walk away at that point. They appealed their convictions.
But South Carolina courts fought in the early 1960s to keep segregation alive. The state Supreme Court refused to overturn the cases of the singing protesters, saying in unanimous rulings that private businesses had every right not to serve “negroes,” so cops could put black protesters who thought differently in jail.
Still, the protesters appealed. Their black lawyer, Matthew Perry, would go on to become a U.S. District Court judge in South Carolina. Columbia’s federal courthouse is now named in his honor.
Finally – in a 5-4 decision issued just months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in interstate matters such as transportation and commerce – the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the convictions of the 65 Rock Hill protesters.
Plummer and Johnson, best friends from those protest days, didn’t know until this week that the U.S. Supreme Court had even heard their cases 50 years ago – much less overturned their convictions.
“None of us knew,” Plummer said. “Nobody ever told us. I went into the service, then on to college.”
He paused before adding, “Well, I’ll be.”
The Friendship Nine’s cases never made it on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. After Jan. 28, they won’t have to.
Johnson, the retired professor who started the student protest movement in Rock Hill, said this month’s court hearing is “a historic day for all who did what was right in those days, and protested what was wrong.”
On that day, York County’s courts will finally declare once and for all that segregation was wrong, that arresting and jailing blacks who only wanted equality was wrong in 1961. Sadly, they’ll do it in a state that shamefully insists on continuing to fly the Confederate battle flag – which many see as a symbol of the very segregation and racism that Brackett and Hayes will repudiate – out front of its Statehouse.
On that day, a nation will look at what happened in a segregated Rock Hill and in a segregated South Carolina.
On that day, millions of heads will shake and wonder what took so long.