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'An American hero.' Friendship 9 member and Rock Hill civil rights icon dies

File video: Friendship Nine sentences vacated after 54 years in 2015

In this January 2015 file video, sentences of the Friendship Nine, who were arrested in Rock Hill 54 years ago, were vacated by Circuit Court Judge John Hayes. They were arrested in 1961 for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter.
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In this January 2015 file video, sentences of the Friendship Nine, who were arrested in Rock Hill 54 years ago, were vacated by Circuit Court Judge John Hayes. They were arrested in 1961 for sitting at a whites-only lunch counter.

James "Jim" Wells, one of the members of the Friendship Nine civil rights protesters, who spent a month in jail in 1961, and whose convictions were overturned 54 years later, died Sunday in his hometown of Rock Hill.

Wells, who later became a prominent Rock Hill lawyer, was 77.

"Jim Wells was one of our quiet leaders, an inspiration to us all," said David "Scoop" Williamson, another member of the Friendship Nine. "He was so smart and gentle. A great, great man."

Wells and the other black protesters were convicted in 1961 of trespassing at a whites-only Rock Hill lunch counter.

The men chose a month in jail rather than paying a fine in what was called the "Jail, no Bail," movement. Their time on a South Carolina chain gang in York County sparked protesters to stay in jail to fight segregation, Jim Crow laws and other forms of racism.

The convictions were overturned in 2015 in a court hearing that became national news. York County prosecutors apologized to Wells and the other protesters for their being arrested and jailed.

"Jim Wells was a fine man and a fine lawyer and I am happy that he was able to have his name cleared while he was still alive to see it happen," said Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor.

Brackett is the prosecutor who vacated the convictions of the Friendship Nine, saying that the men were "American heroes" who changed the course of South Carolina and American history through their courage and bravery.

Wells grew up in Rock Hill and attended Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill in 1961 with other protesters. Most of the protesters grew up together.

"Jim Wells was a friend of mine my whole life," said Willie McCleod., another member of the Friendship Nine. "He believed in what we were doing back then, and was willing, like all of us, to go to jail for what was right. He was a proud and good man."

Wells and other members of the Friendship Nine are honored with stools at the former lunch counter where the protests took place on Main Street in Rock Hill, and with signs and markers around the city.

Wells, an Air Force veteran, is the third member of the Friendship Nine who has passed away. Robert McCullough died in 2006 and Clarence Graham died in 2016.

Brother David Boone, a white Catholic clergyman who was an advisor to the protesters, died in 2017.

"Jim Wells stood beside us all, and changed this country for the better," said Willie T. "Dub" Massey, another of the Friendship Nine protesters. "Time and age are catching up to us all, though."

The Funeral for James Wells will be held 11 a.m. Thursday at Boyd Hill Baptist Church in Rock Hill. The family will receive friends at the Church Thursday from 10 a.m. until the service begins.

Andrew Dys: 803-329-4065, @AndrewDysHerald
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