A year ago Wednesday, the networks parked outside Rock Hill’s law center to tell the world about the Friendship Nine.
A judge vacated the convictions from 1961 when Rock Hill sent nine black men to jail for being black and protesting segregation. The decision came 54 years after the blacks were put in leg irons, no different than the shackles used on slaves.
The media were beside themselves to report that this event took 54 years. Some who had come late to the saga of the Friendship Nine coordinated events and tried to control the message. The Friendship Nine, humble and gracious and honest, went through with it even through there were times of discomfort over the clamor.
Life was better, but it was not the same for blacks as for whites. Friendship Nine member Willie McCleod is a father and grandfather. In his 70s, sometimes he still digs ditches, as this humble man has spent his entire adult life running a septic tank cleaning business. If there is one thing Willie McCleod knows, it is a rotten smell coming from somewhere.
Never miss a local story.
“You can be integrated and still be unequal,” McCleod said.
The January 2015 hearing came before nine blacks in a church were killed, allegedly by Dylann Roof, a white man who is said to be a Confederate flag-loving racist in June 2015. He claimed blacks were taking over everything.
Apparently Roof could not read, or he is blind.
Black male unemployment for people Roof’s age – around 20 – is twice that of whites. South Carolina and America put more blacks in more prisons than a team of computer operators can count.
McCleod says that in 2016, a year after America watched the incredible nobility of the Friendship Nine, blacks still are not equal in this state or country. By any measure of education, wealth, opportunity, blacks are poorer than whites.
“That is not equal any way you look at it,” said McCleod.
Asked about a recent Donald Trump event in Rock Hill, where a couple of Muslim protesters were thrown out, McCleod said those protesters were bothering no one, and trying to prove a point.
Those protesters got national TV interviews. McCleod and the other Friendship Nine protesters, when dragged out by cops in 1961, got 30 days on the chain gang.
“I was born here in this state and this country and I didn’t have any rights,” McCleod said. “Because I was born black. In some ways, we have very few rights now.
“I was fighting for equality when I went to jail,” McCleod said. “I wanted the same equality for black people as white people. In America it is supposed to be equal for everybody.”
After the convictions were reversed, the S.C. Legislature honored the Friendship Nine. They received a standing ovation after walking under the still-flying Confederate flag to get into the S.C. State House.
Only after those nine people were slaughtered in Charleston did the Confederate flag come down. Even the Friendship Nine, men of courage without parallel, who spent a month in jail for being black and a lifetime of abuse afterward because of it, could not bring that flag down.
Only the mass murder of black people for the crime of being black could bring the flag down.
A year after the court hearing, nothing is planned in Rock Hill for the 55th anniversary of the Friendship Nine jailing – no speeches, no marches, no nothing.
On Feb. 26, Winthrop professor Adolphus Belk is holding a program with several of the Friendship Nine called “Civil Rights Then and Now – A Conversation with the Friendship Nine.”
Students, and the public, can ask them why they did it and what they think about 2015 and 2016.
“These are great men – real living heroes,” Belk said. “They are not frozen in time. They have lived long, great lives. What they know and have experienced can help the present and future.”
Willie McCleod will be there. He will sit on the stage and people will ask this proud black man about Rock Hill and South Carolina and America.
The other members of the Friendship Nine are David Williamson Jr., Willie “Dub” Massey, Mack Workman, Tom Gaither, Clarence Graham, Jim Wells, John Gaines, and the late Robert McCullough.
They changed the world, and none is even on Twitter.