South Carolina

Rock Hill civil rights hero Clarence Graham of the Friendship Nine dies

Friendship Nine member Clarence Graham becomes emotional in 2015 after a court hearing at the Rock Hill Municipal Court. The convictions that left the Friendship Nine members in jail for 30 days were vacated at the hearing.
Friendship Nine member Clarence Graham becomes emotional in 2015 after a court hearing at the Rock Hill Municipal Court. The convictions that left the Friendship Nine members in jail for 30 days were vacated at the hearing.

An American civil rights hero died Friday in Rock Hill. A hero who was black, who went to jail in 1961 so that all people would be equal in America.

Clarence Graham of the Friendship Nine died Friday at his Rock Hill home. America is a greater place because of the life he lived – and the courage that he had.

“He was my brother,” said a sad and broken-hearted David Williamson Jr., another of the Friendship Nine civil rights group who knew Clarence Graham since they were boys. “Clarence was a great man.”

Graham, 73, was a member of the Friendship Nine civil rights group that spent 30 days in jail in 1961 after being convicted of trespassing after sitting down at an all-white lunch counter in Rock Hill. The group chose a month on the chain gang at hard labor rather than paying a $100 fine. Their sacrifice and courage reignited the American civil rights movement.

Graham died early Friday afternoon after an illness, said Sabrina Gast, York County coroner. He died at home, where he lived with his mother, Inez.

The same mother he wrote to on Jan. 30, 1961, in a letter where he stated that he was going to jail the next day so that all men and women, all people, would be equal in America.

Clarence Graham became a hero at age 18 that next day and he was a hero every day of his life afterward. He served in the military where his “criminal record” haunted him, and still did not quit fighting for freedom.

“This was a man who dedicated his whole life to equality for black people – for all people, really,” said Brother David Boone, the white Roman Catholic member of the Rock Hill Oratory who was part of the protest movement and integration efforts in Rock Hill all his adult life. “He suffered because of what happened. But he did not waver. He did not quit. He believed that he was equal to anyone and he believed that all were equal. Clarence Graham lived a great life because he was a great man.”

Graham became a spokesman for the Friendship Nine group in recent years, speaking at schools, churches, and to the world in 2015 when the convictions were finally vacated 54 years later in a Rock Hill court hearing broadcast around the world.

Graham’s death marks the second suffered by the Friendhip Nine. Robert McCullough, leader of the group, died a decade ago. The others who survive are Williamson, James Wells, W.T. “Dub” Massey, Thomas Gaither, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman and John Gaines.

“We are all so sad to lose Clarence,” said Wells, another of the Friendship Nine. “He was a fine man. A great man.”

Except for Gaither, a civil rights organizer from Chester County, all the others were raised in Rock Hill and students at Friendship Junior College in 1961 when they decided to protest and go to jail.

“We went to jail together,” said McCleod, another lifelong friend. “We went through it all together. Our whole lives.”

No date has yet been set for services.

Check back for updates.

  Comments