On Thursday, David “Scoop” Williamson worked as a substitute teacher at Rock Hill High School – a school he was not allowed to attend when he was a teen.
As he stood before the students, some asked him, as they almost always do, “Are you that guy that went to jail?”
Williamson, 71, a big man with a soft voice and a gentle way, told them he was that guy who went to jail in 1961 to fight a social, political and cultural system in Rock Hill and the South called segregation. Williamson and eight other young black men who came to be known as “The Friendship Nine” spent a month in jail for the crime of trespassing at a lunch counter designated for whites only.
Under segregation laws, Rock Hill, York, Chester and the rest of the South had separate water fountains and bathrooms for blacks and whites. There were separate schools and separate churches – separate everything. There were signs that read, “Colored waiting room.”
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“Whites only,” just like in South Africa.
Segregation – which maintained that whites were better than blacks – finally was destroyed in America partly because of the courage of David Williamson, the rest of The Friendship Nine and all protesters – black and white – who risked their lives to stand up to bigotry.
Williamson told the kids on Thursday, as he always does, that he did what he did for all – black and white, all races.
When Williamson got home and turned on the TV news, he saw the lead on every station – the death of Nelson Mandela.
Mandela spent 27 years in a South African prison, fighting segregation, known there as apartheid.
The Friendship Nine protesters – most were students at Rock Hill’s all-black Friendship Junior College – knew of Mandela and how he fought for equality. They didn’t hear much about him from the white-controlled media, which did not champion Mandela in 1961. But they heard some.
“Oh, no,” said Williamson. “Mandela.”
Williamson talked Thursday evening of what he and his fellow protesters did all those years ago to help other people. To go to jail so others would not have to go to jail and be second class because of the color of their skin.
The civil rights movement succeeded later partly because of a new tactic employed by The Friendship Nine – Williamson, Thomas Gaither, W.T. “Dub” Massey, James Wells, Mack Workman, Clarence Graham, Robert McCullough, Willie McCleod and John Gaines.
While countless civil rights protesters were arrested and taken to jail, most posted bail and went back to their lives.
But The Friendship Nine chose a different path – “Jail, no bail,” they proclaimed. They stayed behind bars. They worked hard labor at the county prison farm.
The country changed because of the courage of The Friendship Nine.
The world changed because of the courage of Nelson Mandela.
Williamson refuses to compare himself to Mandela.
“I did what I thought was right,” Williamson said. “I did what a man should do – stand up for what is right. Mandela, that was a great, great man. A man of the world.
“All of us owe him our gratitude.”
And again, Williamson meant all people of all colors.
The world mourns Nelson Mandela today. But we celebrate his courage, and that of The Friendship Nine, too.