Rock Hill civil rights hero Clarence Graham of the Friendship Nine dies

Friendship Nine member Clarence Graham becomes emotional in 2015 after a court hearing at the Rock Hill Municipal Court. The convictions that left the Friendship Nine members in jail for 30 days were vacated at the hearing.
Friendship Nine member Clarence Graham becomes emotional in 2015 after a court hearing at the Rock Hill Municipal Court. The convictions that left the Friendship Nine members in jail for 30 days were vacated at the hearing. Tracy Kimball

An American civil rights hero died Friday in Rock Hill. A hero who was black, who went to jail in 1961 so that all people would be equal in America.

Clarence Graham of the Friendship Nine died Friday at his Rock Hill home.

“He was my brother,” said a sad and broken-hearted David Williamson Jr., another of the Friendship Nine civil rights group who knew Clarence Graham since they were boys. “Clarence was a great man.”

Graham, 73, was a member of the Friendship Nine civil rights group that spent 30 days in jail in 1961 after being convicted of trespassing after sitting down at an all-white McCrory’s lunch counter in Rock Hill. The group chose a month on the chain gang at hard labor rather than paying a $100 fine. Their sacrifice and courage reignited the American civil rights movement.

Graham died early Friday afternoon after an illness, said Sabrina Gast, York County coroner. He died at home, where he lived with his mother, Inez.

“My son was a good man,” Inez Graham said Friday. “He cared for people. He loved people.”

Graham’s death marks the second suffered by the Friendship Nine. Robert McCullough, leader of the group, died a decade ago. The others who survive are Williamson, James Wells, W.T. “Dub” Massey, Thomas Gaither, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman and John Gaines.

“We are all so sad to lose Clarence,” said Wells. “He was a fine man. A great man.”

Except for Gaither, a civil rights organizer from Chester County, all the others were raised in Rock Hill and students at Friendship Junior College in 1961 when they decided to protest and go to jail.

“We went to jail together,” said McCleod, another lifelong friend. “We went through it all together. Our whole lives.”

On Jan. 30, 1961, in a letter to his late father and mother where he stated that he was going to jail the next day so that all men and women, all people, would be equal in America.

Clarence Graham’s father was a press operator at The Herald in 1961, yet was told to stop his rabble-rousing son by newspaper management who along with Rock Hill city and business leaders in a then-segregated South were opposed to integration.

Yet Clarence Graham at age 18 in 1961 stood tall.

The text of that letter is as strong today – 55 years later – as it was in 1961. Clarence Graham wrote:

“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."

Clarence Graham became a civil rights hero that next day, then spent a month in prison. He served in the military where his “criminal record” haunted him, and still did not quit fighting for freedom.

“This was a man who dedicated his whole life to equality for black people – for all people, really,” said Brother David Boone, the white Roman Catholic member of the Rock Hill Oratory who was part of the protest movement and integration efforts in Rock Hill all his adult life. “He suffered because of what happened. But he did not waver. He did not quit. He believed that he was equal to anyone and he believed that all were equal. Clarence Graham lived a great life because he was a great man.”

Graham spent most of his adult life in social work and after retirement became a spokesman for the Friendship Nine group, speaking at schools, churches, and to the world in 2015 when the convictions were finally vacated 54 years later in a Rock Hill court hearing broadcast around the globe.

For decades after the Friendship Nine were convicted and served jail time, they were forgotten members of the civil rights movement, But in the past decade Rock Hill has embraced the courage of the men and court officials not only vacated the convictions, but apologized for the way the men and all blacks were treated during segregation.

Kevin Brackett, the York County prosecutor who vacated those convictions, told the world that day in that courtroom that the world would be a better place if there were more of us like Clarence Graham.

“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Clarence Graham – who showed all of us what it means to be a hero,” Brackett said Friday.

On that day in January 2015, Graham spoke to the media from all over America. He stood tall and he said “I can hold my head a little higher today.”

Clarence Graham was never ashamed of being black, nor ashamed of being branded a criminal for 54 years for fighting for equality.

In the past year, his health was failing and the 55th anniversary of the Jan. 31, 1961, protest passed without Graham able to attend a Winthrop University forum honoring the men.

At the Graham family home Friday, one of Graham’s brothers, the Rev. Richard Graham, said this of his trailblazing brother of whom so many Americans of all colors owe a debt of gratitude in working to end segregation and inequality, and ensure freedom for all: “My brother, our brother in humanity, has gone home.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.