Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
They Sat Down
to Stand Up for Justice
Most of the names of the estimated 150 young men and women who conducted the first lunch-counter sit-ins in South Carolina on Feb 12, 1960, are lost to history, but their accomplishments will live forever.
Within days of lunch-counter protests in Greensboro and other North Carolina cities, students from Friendship Junior College, a Baptist institution established for African American students in 1891, marched several blocks to Main Street, the commercial and social hub of Rock Hill. They sat down at four locations including Woolworth and McCrory’s Five & Dime stores but were refused service.
Inspired by noted civil rights leader the Rev. Cecil Ivory and trained in nonviolent protest by CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), these students provided a model for HBCU students throughout South Carolina.
Friendship students formed the Friendly Student Civic Committee, electing sophomore Abe Plummer as president as well as three other student leaders: Martin Leroy Johnson, John Wesley Moore and Arthur Hamm Jr. Hamm was a military veteran and older than many fellow students. Their self-discipline and maturity were key to the group’s keeping its composure in the face of outright hostility. Johnson was student body president.
On Feb. 23, 1960, Friendship College students were joined by students from Emmett Scott High School and Clinton Junior College in a larger protest that targeted Rock Hill’s two bus stations as well as the stores with lunch counters.
A pattern soon evolved in which Friendship students engaged in a bizarre dance with Rock Hill merchants: Lunch counters would be closed as soon as students arrived and reopened only after they headed back to campus.
Another Friendship College student, Howard Hamer, picked up the reins after other leaders had departed, thereby ensuring protests would continue through the summer.
Persistence of the Friendship College “sitdowners” (as the African American press referred to the protestors) was unique among South Carolina colleges.
In refusing to give up, Friendship students bolstered the movement’s credibility and prepared the ground for subsequent activities, including the Friendship Nine protest in January 1961.
These students challenged prevailing community norms and exposed themselves to danger. They were subjected to insults, physical assaults, ammonia bombs and arrests. Bomb threats led to the evacuation of Friendship College dorms, and a cross was burned in front of an African American church.
Arthur Hamm’s arrest for trespass in McCrory’s, along with Rev. Ivory, eventually would be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the 1964 Civil Rights Act abated such convictions under state law.
Their actions inspired protests throughout South Carolina and brought the injustices endured by African Americans to national attention. They showed the way for others and rightfully share in the triumphs of the 1960s civil rights movement.