D.C.-area teens get lesson in Rock Hill civil rights history

Teenagers from the Washington, D.C.-area spent part of Tuesday afternoon looking at a picture on display in Rock Hill of a group of civil rights activists known as the Friendship Nine.

A few hours later, the teens were meeting them, shaking their hands and eating dinner in the same space on East Main Street where police officers had pulled them from their chairs at a lunch counter back in 1961, giving new life to the civil rights movement.

The teens were from a program called “Operation Understanding D.C.,” which brings together Jewish and African-American teens for dialogue and tolerance education. As part of the program, the group is on a three-and-a-half-week tour throughout the South to visit some of the most important sites of the civil rights movement.

As they waited for their food at the Five & Dine – the Rock Hill restaurant that features that same lunch counter from 1961 – the teens watched the S.C. ETV documentary, “Jail, No Bail,” then talked with four members of the Friendship Nine: Clarence Graham, Willie McCleod, James Wells and David Williamson. Mary McCullough, widow of Friendship Nine member Robert McCullough, also was there, as were board members from the Friendship Nine Foundation.

“We hope you’re able to learn that someone was there to make it all possible,” said Josephine Jordan, the foundation’s chair.

She gestured to the teens and told them that they represented the “dream” that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was referring to in his famous speech delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

After the ETV video, the teens asked questions about the Friendship Nine’s experience as they sat at that lunch counter in 1961, were arrested and refused to pay the bail, choosing instead to serve a month on a York County chain gang.

They asked questions about the scariest part of being in jail, the way their lives changed after they were released and how their families and the staff of Friendship College, where they attended, reacted to their actions on behalf their civil rights.

Jordan asked the teens how hearing the story of the Frienship Nine made them feel.

“I felt a lot of pain in my heart,” said Ruthie Sherman, 16, of Bethesda, Md. “All you were doing was fighting for the rights you deserved.”

And while teens Jarod Golub, 17, of Annandale, Va., and Jabraughn Hill, 16, of Rockville, Md., said the Friendship Nine were inspirational, Williamson said the Operation Understanding teens were the inspiring ones.

Hearing from people who were actually there made the group’s stop in Rock Hill very meaningful, Golub said.

“This was the most genuine experience we’ve had,” Hill said.

Both agreed that visiting the restaurant space, meeting some of the Friendship Nine and asking them questions would go a long way in furthering their understanding of the civil rights movement.