As police in front of tanks point guns at protesters in a place nobody ever heard of until a week ago, Clarence Graham is so upset that he is almost to the point of going out there himself.
Graham is in his eighth decade of life and a grandfather many times over, but he was not always old.
In 1961, Graham was the same age as Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9.
He, too, was attending a two-year college.
He, too, was black.
Graham was arrested by police, dragged to jail, and sentenced to 30 days after he and others sat down at a whites-only lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill. The Friendship Nine were young black men who changed America forever by the incredible courage of their peaceful protest.
Brown was shot to death by a white police officer in broad daylight. His death has sparked protests, which have sometimes turned violent and prompted a militant crackdown by police.
“The whole thing, from the shooting of this unarmed teen, to the way that the police and government out there has handled the community afterward, is an embarrassment in this country I love so much,” Graham said. “I look at all sides. I see the way blacks are treated. I am not blind. Blacks generally are treated different by the police. That is a fact. If this young man had his hands up, that means surrender in any language.
“But there is no place for looting, violence, by a few. But that is not the protest by most people there. Most people are peacefully protesting.”
Graham and the other 1961 Rock Hill protesters from Friendship Junior College expected to be arrested for protesting the segregated lunch counter at the McCrory’s Five and Dime store. They chose jail over bail to prove a point and get the media and country to finally pay attention. They never raised a hand to fight back, because the enemy was racism – not the police.
The way any government handles protest does matter. In 1960 and 1961, when black protesters mainly from Friendship College marched repeatedly in Rock Hill, city leaders tried to outlaw protest. The city actually passed an illegal law trying to outlaw protest, which is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Ferguson has not outlawed protest, but it is unmistakable that protest there has been curbed, hindered, by public officials trying to put up roadblocks for protesters who want to know what happened when the white police officer shot the unarmed black teen.
Few facts from the shooting are clear, but trying to dehumanize and corral a largely black Ferguson as it protests and demands answers and justice is not the solution.
Graham walks with a cane now, but he is so upset over what is happening in Ferguson.
“I am tempted to go out there and protest myself,” he said.
Another of the Friendship Nine, Willie T. “Dub” Massey, never raised his hands even after he was beaten by police in a later protest. He has described the police and powers-that-be reaction to black protest in Rock Hill in the turbulent 1960s as “like a war zone.”
The same words so many have used to describe Ferguson.
But Massey and other protesters never fired a shot. Never threw a punch. They were non-violent, period. Their guts changed this city, this state, this nation. What’s going on in Ferguson shows that change is not yet complete for blacks who rightfully demand that the dead teen – and those who are legally protesting – receive the same justice, the same treatment, as anyone else.
Massey would go on to become a teacher, a pastor and a magistrate judge. He cares deeply about respect, love and protest. He knows those three words do not have to be at odds.
“We protested then and carried that through to today, as we tell young people all the time that those protests were for their rights as Americans,” Massey said. “I loved my America so much, I went to jail to make it better for all people of all colors. Is it equal yet? No.”
Rock Hill and York County in 2014 are home to black police captains, lieutenants, sergeants and officers. The previous Rock Hill police chief was black. Those men and women are out there every day protecting the public of all colors, risking their lives, just as the officers who are white and Hispanic do.
Over the past three years, defense lawyers and the Rock Hill branch of the NAACP fought to change a Rock Hill “resisting police” law that they believe targeted blacks. Blacks, mainly young black men, were stopped, detained and sometimes arrested for not following police commands after committing no crime.
The law was changed.
That was protest. Peaceful. Effective.
“The way to get people to listen and make change is always a peaceful, direct conversation,” said David “Scoop” Williamson Jr., another of the Friendship Nine. “Protest is part of America. We teach that to young people every time we talk to them. We tell them that we did it for them, not us.”
Willie McCleod, another of the Friendship Nine, said what has been happening in Ferguson shows that the quest for justice, for equality, concerning police and how government treats blacks remains unfinished. Racism is still taught by some, he said, and blacks – especially young black men – are sometimes profiled by police.
“When we speak about what we did and why,” McCleod said, “we tell people that racism still exists – but it does not have to exist.”
Why did these men – McCleod, Massey, Graham and the others – protest in 1961, when they faced the chance of being hurt or jailed? When their families faced retaliation because of their protesting? Many people in Ferguson are facing legal trouble for protesting.
Here are Clarence Graham’s own words, written the night before the McCrory’s sit-in and his arrest and jailing in 1961:
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.”
Graham’s mother, Inez, celebrated her 91st birthday on Wednesday. Her son, now in his 70s, wished her a happy birthday.
Then the old protester, who went to jail so people of all colors to have the freedom to protest in America, watched returned to watching TV news coverage of black people in Ferguson, Mo., showing what it means to be an American by protesting.