Monday night, there were no police and handcuffs for the Friendship Nine. Just a standing ovation from a crowd of people who gathered in the back of the same building on Main Street in Rock Hill where these black men were arrested 50 years ago to the day, Jan. 31, 1961, after sitting down at an all-white lunch counter.
One of those giving the ovation was U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat and highest ranking black member of Congress. Clyburn, a civil rights protester in the same era who even tried to visit the Friendship Nine in jail in 1961, talked of the lasting impact of the Friendship Nine and, 'how lucky I was in 1960 and 1961 to be a part of this movement."
The Friendship Nine sat in the front row, these guests of honor, to watch a screening of a 30-minute ETV documentary to be released statewide at 8 p.m. Thursday, titled "Jail, No Bail." Nine of the 10 men arrested that day served 30-day prison sentences rather than pay the $100 fine after they were found guilty of trespassing. Their stance, dubbed "Jail, No Bail," by civil rights protesters nationwide, soon spread around the South to other civil rights protesters who were fighting against institutional segregation in several states.
In recent years, the Friendship Nine have been hailed as catalysts for change in how civil rights protests unfolded, and credited with a role in the ultimate demise of segregation. And for almost all of them, what they did 50 years ago they did in their hometown, Rock Hill, where they had lived segregation at school, at those downtown lunch counters and stores, in all aspects of life.
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Yet one of the Friendship Nine, Willie McCleod, reminded people at that special screening that what those men did to smash segregation was not for accolades, nor fame. They were, in 1961, just teenagers who were freshmen at Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, plus a civil rights organizer who came to Rock Hill. Their actions, McCleod reminded the audience, were plainly to give blacks opportunities and equality. The goal was to have the same chances as whites: No more, but for sure, no less.
"This was not about the Friendship Nine, it was not about me, it was about the improvement of a people," McCleod said. "It was about our future. All of us."
In the sit-in 50 years ago Monday, police arrested Friendship students McCleod, David Williamson Jr., Clarence Graham, Mack Workman, Robert McCullough, W.T. "Dub" Massey, James Wells, and John Gaines, all Rock Hill natives in school at Friendship. Also arrested was Thomas Gaither, a civil rights organizer who advised the students, and New Jersey native Charles Taylor, a Friendship student who chose bail after days at the York County Prison Camp. All but McCullough, who died in 2006, were together Monday night for the first time in years.
The documentary shows the civil rights history of Rock Hill, from the bus boycotts of 1957 through the first sit-in in 1960, then the arrest of the Friendship Nine in 1961. After the screening, the Friendship Nine spoke to the crowd about how they had never been pardoned for their actions.
Graham was adamant in saying he paid no fine in 1961 and was paying no $100 now - for anything - including a pardon.
"I am proud of what we did - we did not do anything wrong," Graham said. "We just were found guilty of what was the law at that time. The law was wrong, not us."
The men also offered inspiration for young people who might learn from what the men endured.
"Put something up here," said Williamson, pointing to his head. "Sacrifices have been made for you."
Gaither, the organizer of the students 50 years before, said the civil rights movement was not about the Friendship Nine or any group. Change came from communities just like Rock Hill, where so many spoke out for justice, and he looks forward to a statewide audience being able to watch the documentary and learn the history of the Friendship Nine.
Gaither closed by saying the actions of the Friendship Nine and the fall of segregation did not just improve the lives of blacks, but of all people, with the aim of a country that was less divided by color.
"Keep carrying the message out there to our children to build a stronger America," Gaither said.