Three months after a historic court hearing during which their convictions were vacated, and more than 50 years after the state of South Carolina put them in jail, Rock Hill’s Friendship Nine were honored by the state’s leadership Tuesday for their courage to fight against inequality.
The General Assembly formally honored the civil rights heroes with a Statehouse ceremony Tuesday, after the group met with the Legislative Black Caucus and both houses of the Legislature.
When recognized from the floor of the South Carolina House, the chamber formally apologized to the men for their 1961 arrest and conviction for sitting at an all-white lunch counter in Rock Hill.
“The members of the South Carolina House of Representatives apologize to the Friendship Nine for the struggle they endured to gain civil rights in the Palmetto State,” said Rep. John King, D-Rock Hill, reading from the House resolution along with the York County legislative delegation and the Legislative Black Caucus in honoring the nine on the floor of the House.
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At the other end of the Statehouse, the state’s African-American senators lined up to tell the former Friendship College students that many of them would not be standing in the chamber as lawmakers if the Friendship Nine hadn’t taken the stance they did a half-century earlier.
Many of the civil rights activists seemed overwhelmed by the attention.
“I never thought this would come about,” said Charles Taylor, “I’m honored that God allowed me to live long enough to see it.”
The Friendship Nine includes Taylor, David Williamson Jr., Willie T. “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman, John Gaines, and the late Robert McCullough, along with civil rights organizer Thomas Gaither.
All but Workman were represented at Tuesday’s ceremonies. Five of the surviving members attended in person, and three had family members attend in their place, including McCullough’s daughter Tracey Carter.
Carter said her father would have been ambivalent about the attention the nine have received.
“He was very humble,” she said. “He would have stood toward the back. He did not want a lot of press, a lot of cameras.”
Massey said the absence of McCullough, whom he credited with organizing the sit-in, was felt when the men were being recognized.
“He was our leader,” he said. “He told me what we were about to embark on ... and I said, ‘I’ll come to the training.’”
All but Gaither were students at Rock Hill’s Friendship Junior College in 1961 who sat down at one of Rock Hill’s segregated lunch counters and were arrested for trespassing.
Gaither was an activist with the Congress of Racial Equality, a group he was active with for a few years while a student at Claflin College in Orangeburg with his brother Herman.
“That was the precursor ... he got the wheels turning in college,” said Herman Gaither, who stood in for his brother at the Statehouse. “And the rest is history.”
The next day all were convicted, but nine chose a month at hard labor at the York County prison camp – a strategy that came to be known as “Jail, No Bail” – instead of paying a fine.
Massey said the day felt easier because of the amount of time that’s passed since the events of the early ’60s.
“I always felt it would get recognized at some point,” he said. “But it’s been a long time. I’m just glad I’m still living.”
Taylor missed the court proceedings in January – when the Friendship Nine’s convictions were overturned – because he was snowed in at his home in New Jersey. This time, he and his wife rode by bus to be able to receive the state’s contrition in person.
“I told her we had to come for this,” Taylor said.
Many of the civil rights activists brought family members for the event. Graham brought his 91-year-old mother, Inez, who addressed the morning meeting of the Black Legislative Caucus. She told the legislators she was surprised when she learned her son had been arrested.
“I thought he was in school,” she said.
Asked how she raised a son who was willing to take such a stand, Graham said, “I just taught him to do good.”
Clarence Graham credited the nine’s parents for their actions that day. “We were tired of the way we were being treated, tired of the way our parents were being treated.”
Willie McCleod brought his 7-year-old grandson Kamren Lee along to see the legislative process first hand. McCleod is proud of the group’s accomplishment, but believes the movement still has a lot to accomplish today.
“The civil rights movement that I was a part of was supposed to be about equal rights,” McCleod said. “We settled for integration, but we didn’t get equality.”
Bristow Marchant • 803-329-4062