Lesser-known civil rights activist

On the morning of Jan. 31, 1961, a group of 18 African-American civil rights demonstrators, most of whom were students at Friendship College in Rock Hill, S.C., converged on the McCrory’s 5-10-25¢ Variety Store in downtown Rock Hill. 

Authorities had been notified ahead of time that there would be protests and they were on duty early in case of trouble. Protesters initially marched up and down the street carrying signs. Then, 10 male demonstrators went inside the store and sat down at the counter and refused to leave.

The 10 who sat down at the McCrory’s counter were Willie Edward McCleod, James Frank Wells, Clarence Henner 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 but one students at Friendship College.

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. 

At about 11:30 a.m. all of the young men sitting at the McCrory’s lunch counter were arrested and taken to the city jail. The following day, all 10 arrested were tried for trespassing. 

The first man tried was Charles Taylor, who was found guilty, convicted, and sentenced to $100 fine or 30 days hard labor on the York County Prison Farm. The protesters’ attorney then 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 then tried, found guilty, and sentenced to the same punishment. 

Taylor was concerned about possibly 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 Feb. 2, they began serving out their 30-day sentences on the county prison farm.

The jailed protesters were quickly given the name “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) went 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 paying the fines.

On January 2, 2007, a South Carolina state historical marker commemorating the McCrory’s sit-ins and the Friendship Nine was officially unveiled and dedicated in front of the old McCrory’s building in Rock Hill. This marker is a permanent tribute to the early civil rights protesters in Rock Hill, particularly the Friendship Nine.

Flash forward 54 years. Efforts were made to clear their names.

The surviving members of the group say the push to clear their names so long after the Jan. 31, 1961, sit-in in Rock Hill will have little effect on their lives. 

But they acknowledge it serves another purpose.

“For the generations that are here now and for the future, it shows that the country was wrong,” said one of the men, Willie McCleod, now 72. 

The convictions are among a number of decades-old cases that have been revisited across the South in recent years as courts acknowledge racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

Author Kimberly Johnson, who published a children’s book about the Friendship Nine last year, began to seek vindication for the men after reading what Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in 1963 while he was jailed for demonstrating against discrimination of African Americans.

In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King argued he had a moral duty to stand up to unjust laws. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote.

Johnson said she was struck by the similarity of the nonviolent approaches by King and those of the Friendship Nine, most of whom were attending Friendship College when they agreed to risk arrest at the McCrory’s five-and-dime store’s lunch counter.

At the time, the sit-in movement that had begun in 1960 at a Woolworth’s segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., was losing steam. Organizers thought they could draw more attention if protesters went to jail instead of continuing to pay fines.

Clarence Graham, 72, agreed to participate and remembers being dragged out of McCrory’s by police. Just 17, he knew that some people who went to jail during that turbulent era were not seen again.

“We didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “It was not a very good time.”

They carried the stigma of a criminal record and for years did not talk about the experience, even with their own families.

“I had fears about someone exposing me, saying: ‘Do you know what he did?’” said Willie Thomas “Dub” Massey, 72, who went on to serve in the Army and later became an educator and minister.

So in early February, a South Carolina judge threw out the convictions of the Friendship Nine.

“What these gentlemen did was take a courageous stand against an obnoxious and vile policy,” said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett said. “It’s important that we publicly and legally recognize the wrongfulness of those convictions.”

Their records will still reflect their arrests but will show they were not guilty of a crime, Brackett said.