As Rock Hill rights a wrong this week by erasing the convictions of 10 black men who sat at a segregated lunch counter 54 years ago, a generation of young Americans is at the center – and at the reins – of a current social justice movement.
“I believe in this generation ... I have a great deal of hope,” says 44-year-old Kenn Gaither. He is the son of Tom Gaither, a member of the “Friendship Nine,” the group of men who bravely defied authorities in 1961 by sitting at a segregated lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill.
Tom Gaither was one of the 10 men arrested at the McCrory’s lunch counter on Main Street. The men refused to leave the business after being denied service because they were black.
The 10 men – nine of whom were students at the now-closed Friendship College in Rock Hill – were charged by local police and convicted the next day. The nine who chose to go to jail instead of paying a fine for the charges of trespassing and breach of peace were dubbed the Friendship Nine. The 10th man paid the fine to avoid the possibility of losing his college athletic scholarship.
The Friendship Nine’s “Jail, No Bail” strategy redefined the tactics used by civil rights protesters who were fighting to end racial discrimination.
“Jail, No Bail” became famous.
The Friendship Nine became famous. Their legacy has been honored in many ways through the years.
This week, the men will again be in the spotlight.
On Wednesday, York County and Rock Hill officials will say the court – and by extension, the community – was wrong in convicting Tom Gaither, David Williamson Jr., Willie McCleod, John Gaines, Clarence Graham, W.T. “Dub” Massey, James Wells, Mack Workman, Charles Taylor, and the late Robert McCullough.
The move to vacate the convictions is remarkable and “shows progress by any measure,” Kenn Gaither said. The Rock Hill Friendship Nine’s legacy is something that a new generation of civil rights activists should look to as an example of how to run a peaceful, effective movement, he said.
The look of today’s civil rights protests – largely sparked by recent police shootings and grand jury decisions, which many people say proves more work is needed to end racial discrimination – is different in many ways than the social justice movement of the Friendship Nine’s time.
Young protesters today – many of them in college just like the Friendship Nine men – use online social networks to organize. They get news on their phones nearly the minute it happens. They can make news happen on their phones, using Twitter, Facebook, and other websites to communicate, meet up, and stage protests.
For some young people, active participation in the movement comes in the form of a “hashtag” (#) – a way of categorizing and promoting communication on social media sites. In recent months, the phrases #BlackLivesMatter, #HandsUpDon’tShoot, and #ICan’tBreathe have become popular ways for some of making a collective statement about race relations in America.
Talicia Roseboro, a great-niece of Friendship Nine member John Gaines, keeps up with the social justice movement through social media. Age 16, Roseboro says she sometimes talks with her friends – white and black friends – about civil rights issues.
The topic, she said, is emotional. When a Missouri grand jury decided in November to not indict a white Ferguson police officer who months earlier shot an unarmed black man, the situation was “heartbreaking,” Roseboro said.
Roseboro’s mother, Alisha Meeks, has two adult sons, La’Quavius Judge, age 28, and Ja’Sheem Baxter, age 19. She’s had tough conversations recently – ones that she says seem unfair for a mother to have to have – with her sons about being vigilant and aware of their surroundings, in light of police shootings that have captured nearly-ongoing national media attention.
Her sons are responsible and stay out of trouble, but still she worries, Meeks said.
Often referred to as “millennials,” many of the young people involved in today’s social justice movement have experienced racism and discrimination – though it’s more subtle than in the 1960s when the Friendship Nine quietly sat down at the McCrory’s lunch counter, Kenn Gaither says.
In 1961 “there was no question whatsoever that it was a system of separation,” he said. Today’s system of power and privilege has less obvious results but it is still problematic, with injustice afflicted upon several “marginalized populations” and not limited to racial minorities.
In some ways, Gaither said, the challenges facing today’s civil rights activists are more complex than in the past because discrimination and injustices often “function below the surface.”
Kenn Gaither’s father grew up in Great Falls, about 30 miles south of Rock Hill. In the 1960s, Tom Gaither’s siblings also participated in protests against segregation.
“Word was getting out” that the family was active in demonstrations, Kenn Gaither said. Once, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front lawn of the Gaither family’s home in Great Falls when his father was a young man, he said.
The Friendship Nine’s protest at the McCrory’s lunch counter is just a piece of Tom Gaither’s activism during the civil rights movement. At the time of the Rock Hill protests, he was working as a field organizer with the Congress of Racial Equality and serving as an adviser to the Friendship College students. Later, before being drafted into the military, he worked for other civil rights groups and helped organize the Freedom Rides of May 1961.
While there was plenty to tell, his father “didn’t sit around and tell war stories,” Kenn Gaither said. But, he did share his experiences with his two sons and taught them about justice, belief in God, and fighting for human dignity, his son said.
“Even to this day, he’ll tell me a story that I haven’t heard before.”
Roseboro and Meeks know the story of their Friendship Nine relative, too. Last week in Meeks’ living room, with her mother Mary Meeks, they looked at old newspaper clippings and recounted moments from Jan. 31, 1961 – the day that John Gaines went with the others of the Friendship Nine to protest and sit at the McCrory’s lunch counter.
Gaines’ sister, Mary Meeks, stayed at home during the protests downtown. They lived with their great-grandmother in a house on Hagins Street, less than a mile from McCrory’s.
When Gaines was arrested, his great-grandmother went to the Rock Hill jail to try to bail him out. A family friend drove Gaines’ great-grandmother to the jail and helped her because she was in a wheelchair, Mary Meeks said.
But, Gaines refused to be bonded out. He refused to leave jail. He refused to pay the $100 fine. The Friendship Nine, instead, chose 30 days of hard labor in prison.
Young people continuing the fight for equality and social justice should emulate that kind of sacrifice, Mary Meeks said. To be successful today, “They need to know the whole history,” she said.
The occasional violence that’s surfaced recently in some parts of the country during demonstrations against social injustice bothers Meeks. Fighting and violence, she said, wasn’t necessary during the civil rights movement and isn’t necessary now.
Kenn Gaines agrees, saying that today’s young activists seem to need stronger leadership for their movement.
“This generation is far more attuned to the issues,” he said, but, the reason that activism sometimes looks more like a riot could be because of a lack of central organization and leadership. The absence of a strong, trustworthy, visible leader, Gaither said, could be one reason why today’s protests are more violent or boisterous than the peaceful sit-ins and marches that characterized the civil rights movement.
In the face of discrimination, Gaither said, it’s a natural human emotion to feel angry and want to retaliate.
Though pockets of violence arose during the civil rights movement – often prompted by white counter-protesters attacking peaceful black protesters – the leaders of demonstrations largely demanded peace and civility.
Had just one of the Friendship Nine men given into the “most basic human instinct” to defend himself and display anger when threatened and harassed, it would have changed the course of the group’s mission entirely, Kenn Gaither said. “They didn’t fall prey ... it’s a powerful part of their legacy.”
As their legacy is honored again on Wednesday with the vacating of the Friendship Nine’s 1961 convictions, it will signify “That they didn’t do it for nothing,” Mary Meeks said. “It wasn’t in vain – they did accomplish a lot. There’s a whole lot of change but there’s still more that needs to be done.”