DNC missed chance to honor Rock Hill civil rights icons

adys@heraldonline.comSeptember 8, 2012 

No invitation came in the mail or by phone or e-mail.

Nobody sent a limousine for these men to travel just minutes to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, where countless times so many talked of justice and equality in America.

Yet those who went to jail for those rights, only a few miles from where a president and so many others took bows, didn’t even get a mention.

The Friendship Nine was forgotten.

“I guess they didn’t think about us,” said Willie McCleod, one of the Nine from that included eight students from Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College, who each served 30 days in jail in 1961 after being convicted of for sitting down at an all-white lunch counter.

Their “Jail, No Bail” strategy of fighting segregation by staying in behind bars re-energized the civil rights movement across the country and led to the end of segregation in the South.

But nobody said anything about them all week.

McCleod spent his week digging septic tanks, the way he has made his living for decades, while thousands of people who never marched anywhere but out for a big lunch patted each other on the back and talked about justice and equality and America.

Willie McCleod was snubbed.

The country’s first black president, asking for a second term, was close enough at his Ballantyne hotel just across the border to reach out and hug McCleod, but he did not.

If it wasn’t for the Friendship Nine, President Barack Obama might not have been able to stay in ritzy hotels that – before “Jail, No Bail” and other civil rights protests – was for whites only.

Obama would never have been a candidate without these men, much less president.

One of the Nine, David Williamson Jr., did wait in line last week for a general admission ticket so he could sit in the top rows of Bank of America Stadium to hear President Obama speak.

When the event was moved indoors to the much-smaller Time Warner Cable Arena due to threatening weather, Williamson – nicknamed “Scoop” since childhood – stayed home in Rock Hill.

“I never thought that I should get anything special,” Williamson said. “We didn’t do what we did for ourselves, anyway. We did it for everybody.”

The selflessness of the Friendship Nine and their few supporters – who gave so much 50 years ago so that all would have a fair shake – seems lost in today’s political world.

These men spent a month at a prison farm, on chain gangs, so that young people and old people, white people and black people, Hispanics and Jews and Muslims and all, could walk around Charlotte in the South arm-in-arm while supporting a black man for president.

And nobody remembers them when all the big shots cheer for each other.

James Wells, one of the Nine who later was one of Rock Hill’s first black lawyers, was not invited.

Clarence Graham, who wrote a letter to his mother and father before his arrest and jail time in 1961, was not.

“I thought about trying to go to the speech, but it requires so much moving around, so much walking,” said Graham. “We didn’t do anything where we deserved anything special, but it would have been nice to be there.”

It seems impossible that Graham and all these men are senior citizens, when they were just teens protesting and going to jail a half-century ago.

Here is the letter written by 18-year-old Graham in 1961, in its entirety. The words, 51 years later, still sing and are more powerful than any speech in Charlotte this past week.

“Dear Mom and Dad,

By the time you read this, I suppose both of you will be upset and probably angry. But I hope not. I couldn’t tell you this morning. I wanted to, but I just didn’t know how.

I want you to know that this is something that I really and truly want to do. I just have to. I want you both to be proud of me, not angry. Try to understand that what I am doing is right. It isn’t like going to jail for stealing, killing etc., but we are going for the betterment of all negroes.

You must realize it is time I made some decisions for myself now. After all, I am almost grown and I do want you both to try and understand that this is something I have thought about very seriously.

Really, I just couldn’t be at ease with the rest of my friends and classmates up there, and my knowledge I should be there, too. So try to see things my way and give us, the younger generation, a chance to prove ourselves, please.

And most of all, don’t worry and pray for us.”

Tom Gaither in Pennsylvania, who planned the lunch counter protests in 1961 as a Congress on Racial Equality organizer, was not invited.

Mack Workman in New York? No. On Thursday, when Obama accepted the Democrats’ nomination, Workman had a birthday. He received no balloons or a card from anybody with the convention.

John Gaines in Florence; not on the list. Robert McCullough, a leader of the nine, died in 2006.

Five of the Friendship Nine living so close to Charlotte, but there was no seat at a convention about hope and change and equality and dreams so close to where they were dragged off to jail for wanting those things for all of us so long ago.

Brother David Boone – the white Catholic from The Oratory in Rock Hill who helped plan the protests and for the past 58 years has fought for equality for blacks and all in Rock Hill – was not mentioned or invited, either.

Boone, possibly the most heroic white person in South Carolina’s civil rights history, spent last week working at the soup kitchen for the poor he opened 26 years ago.

Boone’s leukemia has recurred. Last week he had chemotherapy. Next week more chemotherapy.

The week of the convention he was available – but not asked.

“I never thought I should have been invited,” said Boone, in his typical selfless way.

Boone helped leads a state and region and nation from darkness into light, spent decades as the most hated white man in South Carolina – and 25 miles away nobody gives him a second thought.

The day before President Obama accepted his party’s nomination, 40 miles south in Chester, at the high school, a substitute teacher held class.

The teacher – a short guy, bald, with glasses, almost 70 – told the kids that after teaching for decades before retiring that he was no pushover and the day would not be wasted.

A teenaged kid in the back raised his hand.

“Mr. Massey, do they call you ‘Dub’? ” asked the kid.

“Son, yes, they do,” said the substitute teacher, W.T. “Dub” Massey.

“You were in the Friendship Nine, weren’t you?” the kid asked. “My family was talking about it. They said you went to jail.”

Massey, a teacher and a preacher, told the class that after the lesson, he would talk for a few minutes about the Friendship Nine.

“I told them how I went to prison for them,” Massey said. “Every kid, white and black, so they could go to school together, eat together, be together.”

The class, every single kid, asked Massey for his autograph.

At the same time Democrats in Charlotte were telling each other how great they are in fighting for civil rights. Politicians were asked for autographs, most of them hadn’t marched a day in their lives.

Massey then came home to his house northwest of Rock Hill, not 20 miles from where President Obama was nominated to be the candidate of his political party of all colors.

Not a single person in that huge arena said the names McCullough or Massey or McCleod, Williamson or Workman or Wells, Gaither or Gaines or Graham. Nobody said the name Boone.

Yet each one of those men made that convention, that candidate, the dreams of all those who cheered, possible.

Andrew Dys 803-329-4065 adys@heraldonline.com

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