Many in South Carolina and even beyond its borders are familiar with the story of the Friendship Nine. And that is as it should be.
Their story should part of the national gospel, a story told to children and repeated generation after generation. It’s a story that encapsulates the indignities of Jim Crow while highlighting the courage of those who defied it.
Earlier this year, Rock Hill, the site of the Friendship Nine sit-in, went to great lengths to spread that story and, in a real way, to add to it. Fifty-four years after the 1961 sit-in at McCrory’s lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill, white men now in powerful positions moved to negate the actions of white men in power then.
Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Solicitor, ordered a hearing to vacate the sentences of the nine men involved in the 1961 sit-in. Circuit Court Judge John C. Hayes III, whose uncle originally sentenced the men, wrote the decision, saying that the nine had been sentenced solely because of their race, and “such prosecution is on its face unjust under any definition.”
It was a stirring moment of justice and contrition, one more chapter in the lives of these brave men.
On Tuesday, another chapter was written. The Friendship Nine, including David Williamson Jr., Willie T. “Dub” Massey, Clarence Graham, James Wells, Willie McCleod, Mack Workman, John Gaines, Charles Taylor and the late Robert McCullough, along with civil rights organizer Thomas Gaither, were honored by the General Assembly.
The surviving members of the group met with members of the Legislative Black Caucus. After that, they met with lawmakers in both houses and were formally honored with a noon Statehouse ceremony by the entire Legislature.
When the men were recognized from the floor of the S.C. House, the chamber formally apologized to the men for their 1961 arrest and conviction.
Some might find this excessive. How many times must we apologize?
But that misses the point. The repetition is essential. It takes on the character of a religious confession and rite of penance.
In other words, it’s good for the soul – not just the souls of those directly involved in the ceremony but also the soul of the state. By recognizing and apologizing for the injustices suffered by the Friendship Nine, stand-ins for all those subjugated by institutionalized segregation, we inch closer to a condition of equality for all.
Even half a century after the sit-in, we have a long way to go. Look at what’s happening this week in Baltimore.
But that shouldn’t diminish the importance of Tuesday’s ceremony. It will help keep the story of the Friendship Nine alive and fresh.
These men can’t be honored enough.
Ceremony in the Statehouse to honor the Friendship Nine was an appropriate act of penance.