NOMATINATE A LOCAL HERO
On the morning of January 31, 1961, a group of eighteen African American civil rights demonstrators (thirteen men and five women), most of whom were students at Friendship College, converged on the McCrory’s 5-10-25¢ Variety Store in downtown Rock Hill. Rock Hill city police and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) agents had been notified ahead of time that there would be protests and they were on duty by 8:30 AM in case of trouble. Initially the protesters marched up and down the street carrying protest signs, then the male demonstrators went inside the store and ten of the thirteen young men sat down at the counter and refused to leave.
The ten protesters who sat down at the McCrory’s counter that morning were Willie Edward McLeod, James Frank Wells, Clarence Henry Graham, Thomas Walter Gaither, David “Scoop” Williamson, Robert Lewis McCullough, Mack Cartier Workman, Willie Thomas “Dub” Massey, John Alexander Gaines, and Charles Edward Taylor. All the young men were students at Friendship College except for Thomas Gaither, who was a graduate of Claflin College and a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Eight of them were graduates of Emmett Scott High School in Rock Hill: Wells and Graham graduated in 1959, while Williamson, McCullough, Gaines, McCleod, Massey and Workman graduated in 1960. The other Friendship student, Charles Taylor, was a native of Union County, New Jersey.
These young men, along with many other Rock Hill demonstrators, had been arrested for trespassing several times during the previous year; each time they paid their bail and were released. But on this occasion in January 1961, they had decided ahead of time that if arrested, they would not accept bail but would serve out their sentences. By doing so they would not only break the cycle of continually paying money into an unfair legal system but also bring greater attention to the segregated nature of lunch counters and other public places in Rock Hill and elsewhere.
At about 11:30 AM all ten of the young men sitting at the McCrory’s lunch counter were arrested and taken to the city jail. The young women continued to carry picket signs on the street for about fifteen minutes after the young men were arrested, and then they left. The following day, the ten arrested demonstrators were tried for trespassing. The first man tried was Charles Taylor, the Friendship student from New Jersey. Taylor was tried, found guilty, convicted, and sentenced to $100 fine or 30 days hard labor on the York County Prison Farm. The protesters’ attorney, an African American lawyer from Sumter named Ernest A. Finney, asked the judge to let Taylor’s trial be used as a basis for the other nine, and the judge agreed. The other nine were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to the same punishment. Taylor was concerned about the possibility of losing his athletic scholarship at Friendship, so with the assistance of the NAACP he paid his bail and was released. The NAACP offered to pay the bail for the remaining nine protesters, but they refused, and on February 2, they began serving out their 30-day sentences on the county prison farm.
After beginning their sentence on the county farm, the nine protesters were quickly given the appellation “Friendship Nine” by the press, and the case became famous nationwide. Motorcades of other protesters and supporters converged on the prison, and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) came to Rock Hill and demonstrated; they too were arrested, jailed, and refused bail. Over the course of the next year further demonstrations and arrests followed in Rock Hill, as well as in other cities throughout the United States. Protesters across the country adopted the “jail no bail” policy implemented by the Friendship Nine and served out their jail sentences rather than helping to subsidize a system that supported segregation and inequality. These acts of heroism by the Friendship Nine and others helped to spur even larger protests like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 1963 and the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965. The result of these many demonstrations was the passage of such monumental civil rights legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968.
On January 28, 2015, the 1961 trespassing convictions for these men were vacated from court records. This important moment in history was distinct from a pardon, which is defined as forgiveness for a crime. The convictions were vacated to signify that they never should have been charged in the first place.