Clarence Graham probably couldn’t imagine in 1961 that he’d have a seat reserved just for him at the same diner where he and eight other black men were arrested for taking a seat at the all-white business.
Within hours of Graham’s passing on Friday at the age of 73, employees at the Five & Dine placed flowers, a black napkin and a glass of pink lemonade – Graham’s beverage of choice when he visited the downtown diner – in the spot he always sat in.
“It’s very special that we reserved that spot for him,” Five & Dine chef Angel Foster said. “We didn’t let anybody sit there. We’ll probably leave it like that for a while.”
Graham was a member of the Friendship Nine civil rights protest group that spent 30 days in jail in 1961 after being convicted of trespassing for sitting down at the counter of the all-white McCrory’s in Rock Hill. The men opted for a month of hard labor on the chain gang rather than paying a $100 fine, and their sacrifice reignited the American civil rights movement. Their convictions were tossed out in January 2015.
Saturday, Friendship Nine members David Williamson Jr. and Willie McCleod sat just a few seats down from Graham’s seat, remembering their friend.
“His legacy is his fight for humankind,” McCleod said. “See, we did not do this just for black people. We did this for humankind – everybody.”
The death of Graham, whom Williamson described as a brother, wasn’t the only loss they reflected on Saturday.
“Back then, although we would demonstrate against the system, people respected each other and there was civility,” Williamson said. “And there was love. I might not like what you was doing, but I still had to love you as a human being. And we don’t have that today.”
Williamson also lamented the loss of respect in America, which he said is reversing the progress made by people such as the Friendship Nine.
“Respect that person no matter their religion, sex, race, age, gender – whatever,” he said. “That’s why I’m so sad about this situation now. And I know if Clarence had anything to say, he’d wonder what is going on now.”
To make things right again, both men say, the country needs a “change of heart.”
“Love covers a whole multitude of sin,” Williamson said as McCleod nodded, responding, “Amen.”
There were laughs too on Saturday. Williamson said one of his favorite memories of Graham was during their time on the chain gang.
“He was worried his girlfriend thought he might be cutting out on her,” he said. “I said, ‘Clarence, who you cutting out with? There’s nothing but men standing here.’”
Graham was on his way to the hospital last week when he and McCleod last spoke.
“He called me Monday and said, ‘Willie, I’m going back in the hospital. Pray for me,’” McCleod said. “I told him I would, and I told him I’d be up there to see you.
“I never did get the chance to go up there,” he said.