Note: This story was first published in January, 2009
Next to a lunch counter that was segregated for so long sat a table of two white people and five black people Friday afternoon. Just another Friday in Rock Hill, South Carolina, January 2009.
Conversation quickly took the group back to Jan. 31, 1961.
Elwin Wilson, one of those white men, had come that day to that very lunch counter four steps from where he was now, wanting to pull one of those black men off of the stool he was sitting on. He wanted to give a beating.
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The other white man, Steve Coleman, had been just outside, among so many, wanting to scream racial epithets.
But 48 years later, Wilson, now 72, and Coleman, in his mid-60s, wanted something entirely different from these five black people.
They wanted forgiveness.
These black men and women -- just a few of the folks known as the "Friendship Nine" and the "City Girls" -- have been honored in museums.
They have been apologized to by politicians.
Their names are etched on stools at that lunch counter.
But never before had any of the white men from that day in 1961 asked to meet any of them, and sit down with them where it all started and apologize for hating them.
So, David Williamson and Willie McCleod, Phyllis Hyatt and Elsie Springs, and for sure Patricia Sims, didn't skip a beat to forgive.
Williamson said words that he and the other men and women protesters have said for decades.
"We accept your apology," Williamson said. "We forgave everybody a long time ago."
'Jail, no bail'
Williamson spoke with authority in this place that had changed his life and this nation because his name is on the stool behind him. Etched in chrome, forever. He and the other blacks at that table Friday, long ago students at Friendship Junior College, fought segregation at that lunch counter and other places in Rock Hill in 1960 and 1961.
The black men, who with seven others came to be known as the "Friendship Nine," sat on the stools 48 years ago, Jan. 31, 1961, then spent 30 days on the chain gang for the crime of being black and wanting service where whites ate.
These black women at the table, called the "City Girls," marched for equality outside in 1960 and 1961, right alongside the men after all the publicity of the arrest and "jail, no bail" strategy. The action helped spark a civil rights movement across the South that didn't end until segregation was dead.
The Friendship Nine are, along with Williamson and McCleod, John Gaines, Thomas Gaither, Clarence Graham, W.T. Massey, James Wells, Mack Workman and the late Robert McCullough.
The known City Girls are, with Hyatt, Springs and Sims, Olivette McClurkin and Lucilla Wallace Reese.
'Meanest man' in Rock Hill
Wilson started with: "I was once the meanest man that ever was in Rock Hill." He was there Friday to tell people whom he had hated for so much of his life that he had changed. He was not going to be denied saying what he came to say, and all five black people were gracious and let him.
Wilson spoke of how he was one of the men who beat up Freedom Riders at the Rock Hill bus station in May 1961. He told of trying to pull a protester from a stool earlier that year, Jan. 31, 1961 -- the day that changed Rock Hill forever and 48 years later brought these seven people together.
"I'm not proud of this," Wilson said, to which Williamson replied immediately as he fought back tears that he has cried so many times in his life, "We are not here to judge you."
These black people didn't so much as blink when Wilson said he did so much "bad" to black people in his long life. But today he was there "with kindness in my heart."
Wilson said he wanted to apologize because, "God led me to do it."
"He will do that," said one of those women, Phyllis Hyatt, who sure knows what faith will do in life when marching as a black person in the segregated South could have meant injury or death.
"Sure sounds like you turned into a Christian," said the other black man at the table, Willie McCleod.
"We all get a second chance, and this is it," Williamson said. "It's a blessing."
Coleman, a decorated and retired Rock Hill police officer, then
spoke quietly but clearly. He was a teenager that day in 1961.
He went to school -- a segregated school, but he didn't have to say that because Rock Hill public schools were all segregated in 1961 -- then skipped out after lunch. Just so he could go and taunt those black demonstrators and use every nasty, foul word that he knew.
"Being raised in the South, you know how I was," Coleman told the group. "But I've changed."
Coleman asked for forgiveness for being in that group that taunted those black people that day. He started to cry, to speak slower.
"Take your time," Williamson said. "We are not going anywhere."
"I was in that crowd," Coleman said of Jan 31, 1961. "I hollered along with the rest. I can remember the look of determination. Not on our faces. But yours. You know, I am sorry."
Segregation died because of what those determined black people did in Rock Hill. And probably because of what those racist white people did, too.
Wilson knows that.
In a famous picture published in The Herald in 1960, passed around that table Friday, a black man is seen wiping egg off of his hat while walking in downtown Rock Hill. A cheering white crowd is in the background.
"I threw that egg," Wilson said.
He pointed himself out in the picture. Tall, smiling, happy to hate, in 1960.
And still on Friday, these black people forgave him.
Eventually, the conversation shifted to small talk.
Coleman showed pictures of his grandchildren. His black grandchildren. His daughter married a black man.
"The most beautiful grandbabies in the world," Coleman said, and these people -- white and black -- all agreed.
Elwin Wilson smiled when he looked at those black grandchildren of the other white man at that table.
All spoke of places known that are so long gone -- service stations and shoeshine stands and one-time dime stores like the one they sat in Friday, now home to a terrific eatery called the Old Town Bistro. Coleman knew Hyatt's mother and remembered she was wonderful and pretty.
All knew a black policeman in the 1960s named Bill Singleton. Singleton died on the job, shot to death after he responded to a domestic disturbance.
Coleman, who had no use for blacks until Singleton had been so good to him as a young police officer, told this group Friday how he had to go tell Singleton's family the sad news and take them to the hospital.
"I can see that man's black face right now," Coleman said, and all the black people at the table nodded because the term "black" was them, and they all knew Singleton and remembered his face, too.
'The way people were raised'
Wilson said his family was not prejudiced and wondered aloud why he was. He has no answers other than he "thought it was cool" in those days.
Coleman, who said his family also was not prejudiced, said out loud at this lunch counter where hate used to live, "I can't believe now, all the fuss, for you just wanting to sit down for service."
Hyatt, a teacher all her life, said, "It was the mob mentality, peer pressure, the way people were raised back then."
Sims and Springs and McCleod agreed.
"There you go -- the way people was raised," McCleod said.
Nobody had to tell him hate was taught.
Hyatt then spoke to Wilson, loud in words that came out like a hymn in church, words so strong that people sat up to hear better: "If you ask God to forgive you, he will," Hyatt said. "I thank you for coming forward. You are here. It makes a difference."
Williamson said the election and inauguration of Barack Obama as president showed, "if everyone will do what's in their heart, it will come out."
One person at a time, like Wilson and Coleman were doing right in front of his eyes.
"This is a step that will heal old wounds," Hyatt said.
Hugs and handshakes
Then it was time to go. What was to be said had been said, and accepted.
Coleman grabbed his cane. Williamson helped him up.
There were hugs and handshakes among people who in 1961 were separated by both the law and by hate.
Elwin Wilson smiled when he shook hands with the men. He got a hug from Sims, this black lady with so much courage years ago -- and forgiveness on this Friday afternoon.
"If this changes just one person, and I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about somebody else, we done something here today," Wilson said.
And all at that table said Elwin Wilson -- who had punched and thrown and tugged his way into history, who had hurt so many -- was finally right.
About the Friendship Nine
A McCrory's lunch counter sit-in on Rock Hill's Main Street in the fall of 1961 involved mostly Friendship Junior College students. All were sentenced to 30 days hard labor in the York County jail. Earlier sit-ins involving Friendship Junior College students were held in January 1961, though these individuals were not arrested.