The judge strode into the courtroom at the Rock Hill Municipal Court Tuesday, the day before a historic court hearing that will vacate the convictions of black civil rights protesters from 1961 who went to jail for trying to get equality.
She wore the judicial robe and walked with long strides. There was no question who was in charge – she was.
Judge Tanesha Lonergan is black. She is one of three black Rock Hill city judges who wear the robes that today mean fairness and equality.
Lonergan explained the charges against two defendants, advised them of their rights, and told them that if they want trials, which they are entitled to under the law, the trials will be months away. Both were sent to jail, with bail possible.
Neither wanted to go to jail like the Friendship Nine did 54 years ago. The nine, most of them students at the former Friendship College in Rock Hill, accepted sentences of a month of hard labor to prove that segregation, prejudice, and laws that said blacks were less than whites were wrong. The Friendship Nine did not pay their $100 bail after being found guilty a day after their arrests.
Justice in 1961 was administered with the speed of an avalanche. If you were black, the avalanche fell on you.
Still, for the protesters, equality had no dollar amount.
On Tuesday, Lonergan explained how thrilled she is to be a part of a city, a justice system, that has changed so much from 1961, when all the judges, all the lawyers, all the cops were white. Blacks cleaned the jail, swept the courtroom, and appeared as defendants. It was against custom, and illegal, in 1961 for blacks to serve on juries.
And now, in the courtroom adjacent to the main courtroom where history will be made at 10 a.m. Wednesday, Lonergan will watch it happen in the same courtroom where she at times is the judge handling bond hearings, arrest warrants, and search warrants.
“I think it is just awesome,” she said of Wednesday’s court hearing. “Me being here, having this job, explains how far we have come as a culture, a society.”
On Jan. 31, 1961, the day the black protesters from the all-black Friendship Junior College were arrested for sitting down to eat at a whites-only lunch counter, all parts of Rock Hill and South Carolina and society in the South were segregated. Water fountains, waiting rooms, movie theaters, motels, buses, schools.
Friendship College was all-black but it was not segregated. If whites wanted to go there, they were welcome.
Without the courage of the Friendship Nine, and other protesters, Lonergan said she would not be a judge. The old customs, the old laws, only died because protesters – non-violent protesters – demanded equality and were willing to go to jail for it. Lonergan has never met the men who will appear in court Wednesday, the Friendship Nine, but she is thrilled to have the chance.
“I just want to say ‘Thank you’ to each of them,” Lonergan said. “They went to jail to prove a point for all people. That point is that all men and women, regardless of the color of their skin, should be equal. Every person, no matter their color, should thank these men.”
Lonergan was not alone in her small courtroom, and not alone in her thanks to these protesters. The victim advocates – Flo Anderson and Avanette Gregory – the ladies who help those hurt in crimes, are both black.
In this court hearing Tuesday, the defendants were black, too.
Anderson, who has lived in Rock Hill all of her six decades, grew up in segregation and knows that the protests changed the city. She is tough. She accepts no excuses from defendants of any color who maim or steal or kill, but she sure knows that the men in court 54 years ago as defendants were heroes.
“We all want to see the case in court – what happened to those men was wrong,” Anderson said.
Tuesday at Rock Hill Municipal Court, as Lonergan ran the business at hand, network television camera crews who had never been to Rock Hill before scurried around getting ready for Wednesday’s historic hearing.
Nobody looked twice at the black judge, the black police officer, the black clerks of court and victims advocates who do part of the work that keeps courts running.
The police officer in charge of Rock Hill’s courtroom security in 2015 has been on the job for 18 years in Rock Hill and Philadelphia. He has trained many of Rock Hill’s street cops, and he was named officer of the year by his peers. His name is Sam Buchanan, and he is black.
Rock Hill has had black police officers since 1967, and even had a black police chief for almost a decade until John Gregory retired in 2012.
Buchanan has never met the men whose courage changed Rock Hill and enabled people who look like Buchanan to be police officers.
Wednesday the former Friendship students – David Williamson Jr., Willie T. “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman, John Gaines, Charles Taylor will be in court again, but without the late Robert McCullough. All were arrested and convicted, along with civil rights organizer Thomas Gaither from Great Falls, who already had graduated from college. “I can’t wait to meet them, and thank them,” Buchanan said. “They helped get us here.”
Taylor ended up paying the fine out of fear he would lose his athletic scholarship.
Six days after the Friendship Nine were convicted in 1961, four black protesters from other states – Ruby Doris Smith, Diane Nash, Charles Sherrod and Charles Jones – came to Rock Hill. After they were arrested for trespassing, they chose to spend a month in jail to show their support for the Friendship Nine. They also will be exonerated in Wednesday’s hearing.
Buchanan said all of those people allowed him, 54 years old, to be able to help people of all colors as a police officer.
“It’s a privilege to be a part of this,” Buchanan said. “It’s an honor.”
Wednesday, if the protesters who are now in their 70s need him, Buchanan said the help will come.
“I will carry them in my arms if that’s what it takes,” Buchanan said. “They already helped everyone else.”