Andrew Dys

March 6, 2014

Children’s book on Rock Hill civil rights protesters out

A new children’s book tells the story of the Friendship Nine, the Rock Hill civil rights protesters who went to jail in 1961 to battle racial segregation.

On Thursday afternoon, two grandfathers stood in the Five & Dine restaurant on Rock Hill’s Main Street, each holding a children’s book.

On the cover of the book is an illustration of nine young black men who were dragged to jail from the very same spot in 1961 because they sat down at a whites-only lunch counter to protest racial segregation.

“That’s me,” said Clarence Graham, 70, pointing to one of those young black faces on the cover. “It really happened, right here. They hauled us right out the back door to the police station out back.”

Graham then did what he had vowed he would not do – he cried about what happened to him in his hometown and what he did that helped change America.

Willie McCleod, 71, the other protester at the counter Thursday, read from the book, which arrived this week and is now on sale so the world can learn about these men, these Friendship Nine.

“People sometimes don’t know that in those days, the laws and the society kept black and white apart,” McCleod said. “People don’t know that we were told we were less. That we were not equal.”

A stranger sat at the next stool. A white man, he ate grilled cheese and soup.

“I was 13 years old in 1961,” the man said. “And I am here sitting next to the people who sat here all those years ago. It is so nice to meet you.”

Graham said it was his pleasure to meet the man, too, and they shook hands.

A simple gesture, but in 1961, it was almost unheard of.

That exchange Thursday at the spot of the old McCrory’s dime store, now the Five & Dine, is what the book and the Friendship Nine are all about.

Children’s author and motivational speaker Kim Johnson hopes to reach young audiences with the book – “No Fear for Freedom: The Story of the Friendship 9” – teaching them about the strength and resolve of the men, and the female students who protested, too.

On Jan. 31, 1961, nine Friendship Junior College students and one civil rights organizer were arrested at the McCrory’s lunch counter after the men asked for service at the segregated restaurant.

Sit-ins and protests had been going on at downtown restaurants and bus stations for a year, mainly by Friendship Junior College men and women and the Rock Hill NAACP, resulting in mass arrests.

But this protest was different.

All 10 men were found guilty of trespassing the next day in court. But this time, rather than pay a $100 fine, each man chose a 30-day jail sentence at hard labor at the York County prison farm.

The term “Jail, no Bail” was coined, and the stance these young men took reinvigorated civil rights protests across the South. One of the students left jail after a few days, and the remaining nine later were dubbed the “Friendship Nine.”

The protesters – Graham, McCleod, David Williamson Jr., John Gaines, Mack Workman, Thomas Gaither, James Wells, W.T. “Dub” Massey, and the late Robert McCullough – were honored decades later by the city of Rock Hill. Stools with their names on them can still be seen and sat in at the Five & Dine.

And now the book will be part of that recognition and history and honor.

The Friendship Nine now has a foundation, made up of its members and others, who are working to make sure the group’s achievements are documented and shared.

“Sometimes when we speak to schoolkids, they don’t believe it happened,” Graham said. “They can’t believe that Rock Hill was segregated and that we had to go to jail to try to change it. There are some people of my generation who don’t want to remember it, either. Some were part of segregation.

“This book is another way to show people that this is what it was like, and that so many tried to change it.”

McCleod hopes the book will give young people another way to learn about the history of the civil rights movement.

“It was downright scary to go to jail at age 18 because you were black, but that’s what happened,” he said.

Johnson, a native of nearby Shelby, N.C., called it “an honor” to work on the book with members of the Friendship Nine for the past couple of years.

An anniversary dinner and book unveiling event is scheduled for March 14 at the Palmetto Room, located behind the Five & Dine. It’s a chance to meet many of the Friendship Nine members and Johnson and get an autographed copy of the book.

“I remember that day when we were arrested like it happened today,” Graham said. “I can never forget it.

“And I hope that others now – children especially – will read this and know we did it for them, too.”

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